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Fair or Foul: If You Giveth, Can You Taketh Away?

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On February 6, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 27 Comments

If you’ve been GMing for any length of time then you’ve probably allowed your characters to have something you soon regretted. Sometimes it’s handing a low-level character the +5 Holy Avenger, sometimes it’s letting the investigative psychic have the mind-reading power, and sometimes it’s letting the military characters acquire a lance of the most powerful mecha on the battlefield.

When such things happen, it can be difficult to “take it back” without hurting feelings or impacting the campaign. In some cases, the rules work against you; the PC’s new power was a legitimate XP purchase, the uber-weapon was lying in a treasure trove of a published adventure, or the war machines were legitimate salvage.

I think in theory, most GMs would say “if it is ruining the fun, get rid of it,” but this is easier said than done. Is it worth the aggravation and hurt feelings? Is it easier to try and work around it, even if it means cutting your campaign much shorter than you’d intended?

I’ve found that, as I’ve grown with experience, I can catch these things early and nip them in the bud with minimal fuss. The player is usually content so long as she doesn’t feel weakened by the taking; she gets her XP back, she’s offered something else of equivalent, but less game-breaking, value, or all the PCs take the same hit, equalizing the loss.

There are still times, though, when a player gets to keep something for several adventures before I realize it’s an issue (or I’ve stopped trying to work around it, which also isn’t fair to the player).  By this point, the player has become attached to the new power and she has a paper trail of adventures to back her argument. Unless she can see how her power made those adventures less fun, then she’s going to have a difficult time wondering why you think it’s a problem.

So, fair or foul? If a PC acquires something that is problematic, should you take it away? Do the circumstances of the acquisition or the timing of the proposed taking matter? If you did take something away, how did it affect the rest of your campaign?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Fair or Foul: If You Giveth, Can You Taketh Away?"

#1 Comment By Necrognomicon On February 6, 2012 @ 2:25 am

“Unless she can see how her power made those adventures less fun, then she’s going to have a difficult time wondering why you think it’s a problem.”

If the players are still having fun, I don’t see the problem. While you (the DM) may think that the PCs missed out on something really cool due to the item/power, I’m sure you’ve run games where everything was ‘balanced’ but the PCs still managed to skip/thwart whatever it is you thought was really cool.

There’s no guarantee that *not* having the power/item would make it *more* fun, just as there’s never a guarantee that every player will agree with you on what constitutes ‘fun’ in the adventure (or RPGs in general, for that matter).

Whatever it was in those sessions that the players enjoyed (roleplay, tabletalk, solving a problem in a novel way) wouldn’t necessarily happen in the parallel Earth-B version of your game.

It’s only a problem (in my experience and opinion) if the item impinges upon the other players’ enjoyment of the game, and usually they’ll let the DM know if that’s the case.

I agree that working around it is unfair to the player. You are likely making it *less* fun if you do that, since you are not letting the player make any use of their new toy.

If the all the players are having fun:
Don’t work it out, work it in.

#2 Comment By Lord Karick On February 6, 2012 @ 5:34 am

@Necrognomicon
I was about to reply, but then I saw that Necrognomicon had made my point anyway. The 0th law of gaming if you will: Are they having fun. All other laws are subservient to that one.
Where it gets tricky is when you honestly believe that the magic twinky is spoiling the fun. I don’t envy the GM in that position :)

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On February 6, 2012 @ 5:55 am

@Necrognomicon – Thanks for the comment! I agree that it’s less of a problem if the group as a whole is having fun.

I should have made it clear that by “fun,” I’m also referring to “Player A’s fun at the expense of the other Players’ fun.”

#4 Comment By Razjah On February 6, 2012 @ 6:11 am

I would talk to the whole group. Ask them if the +5 holy avenger is really game breaking. If it becomes a big deal, ask the player is a temporary solution would work. The solution? One of the simplest tricks- it gets stolen and the party goes and a quest for revenge. Hopefully this new adventure will balance out the other PCs before giving back the awesome new toy an in game bully stole.

#5 Comment By danroth On February 6, 2012 @ 6:41 am

It could work out if you manage to have it break somehow, or lose some of its power magically (maybe an enemy can cast dispel magic, or something like that). If you want the brute force method, you could just throw really tough monsters at them and hope they die (I don’t endorse this). I like @Razjah‘s idea, too

#6 Comment By Thammorn On February 6, 2012 @ 6:51 am

I had a player in a Traveller20 game who built a small robot, which proceeded to hog gametime at the expense of other players (This was not the first time this player had become a “timehog” problem.). After a couple of players complained to me, I arranged for the ‘bot to sacrifice itself in order to say the party’s ship (and its pilot, one of the more vocal opponents coincidentally). The ‘bot went out in glory and the player, while sorry he lost his pet, took consolation that he died in a good cause. For some reason (DM Fiat), he nwas never able to get the parts to rebuild it…

#7 Comment By DireBadger On February 6, 2012 @ 7:16 am

If the “Thing” is out of hand, the owner might not necessarily notice or agree. Even if the other players don’t mind, the GM might have concerns, and GM fun matters too.

That said, just because the Thing can change the dynamic of a game doesn’t mean it’s bad and needs to be taken out back and shot. A power or item that bends plots can also be used to enable plots at a higher scale of play because of it’s power.

For example, in my Vampire campaign, one of the PCs has learnt a ritual to look back in time to see what happened before. This is a pretty hefty thing, because mystery-solving is important in my game. The player appreciates this, and understands this one power shouldn’t be allowed to easily shortcut entire mystery plots, but on the other hand I’m not going to take it away entirely.

Fortunately for me, the player agrees on it’s power, so we’ve reached a good compromise: to use the ritual, you must be at the place whose history you want to view, and you must know the specific time you wish to view. So it can’t do all the detective work, because you still need to learn when and where to look with it. I also gave it a significant casting time (2 hours), which matters because vampires need to be home before the sunrise turns them into pumpkins.

I like this solution because I don’t have to take away the essential nature of the Cool Thing, but it doesn’t disrupt the game quite as much because using it is more limited, and the limits give the other players a chance to get involved in the detective work as well.

#8 Comment By Mike Matkin On February 6, 2012 @ 7:39 am

There’s always the Tolkien route: turns out that the item or power in question is a source of great evil and must be destroyed or renounced, leading to an extraordinary quest.

#9 Comment By Clawfoot On February 6, 2012 @ 7:53 am

Yes, I have both given and taken away. When I first started my current D&D 4e campaign, I made a lot of mistakes due to my inexperience with the game. One of the “house rules” I made when the players were all still 1st level was that I changed the cleric’s “Turn Undead” power from a Channel Divinity (encounter power) to its own at-will power. At the time, it seemed appropriate, but I soon learned to deeply regret it. It was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made as a GM, as it unbalanced the party to a ridiculous degree. Eventually, the cleric had an at-will (now minor action, thanks to a Feat) power that was more powerful than any other character’s daily powers.

It wouldn’t normally be a huge deal, I’d just limit the number of undead the party faced, but we’re playing through all of the official D&D modules (H1: Keep on the Shadowfell through to E3: Prince of Undeath). See that last title there? Yeah, the whole run is chock full of undead. Plus, the cleric took another feat that allows his Turn Undead to also affect elementals (demons).

I spoke to the player about my concerns, and asked if she’d be upset if we reset the power to what it was supposed to be to begin with, and she was extremely reluctant to change it back. So I compromised. I allowed the power to stay the same in the natural world and in the Feywild, but on any other plane of existance (the Shadowfell, the Abyss, etc.), the character would be limited to using it as many times a day as his Wisdom modifier.

At one point (before nerfing the power), she wanted to take the Feat that made Turn Undead also affect dragons, and I actually put my foot down on that one. I don’t normally restrict which Feats players can take, but the ranger of the party had a Dragonslaying bow and a history of hunting and killing dragons. Dragons was his “thing,” and I really didn’t want this already overpowered cleric to start flinging dragons around like they were made of tissue paper.

I explained it to the player, and she agreed. We also agreed that Pelor (her character’s patron) didn’t really have anything against dragons as a whole, so wouldn’t grant his clerics that power. Yes, there are evil dragons, but there are also evil halflings, and he wouldn’t grant someone a “Turn Dragon” power any more than he would grant “Turn Halfling.”

So yes, I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve tried to fix them. I still think the cleric is overpowered, but it’s manageable now, and the other players aren’t feeling quite so outclassed.

#10 Comment By Razjah On February 6, 2012 @ 8:22 am

@danroth – Woot! Someone liked my idea.

Back on topic:
@Mike Matkin -This may be better than my idea. Everyone wants to take down Sauron. Now you can be Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf and do it with style and less grumbling about empty bellies.

#11 Comment By Mike Matkin On February 6, 2012 @ 8:57 am

@Razjah – I think what I like best about it is that it gets the PC to give up the overpowered whatever by being a hero, rather than as a punishment. Plus, as a GM, it makes it look like I had it planned that way all along. Three cheers for the perception of infallibility!

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On February 6, 2012 @ 9:27 am

Oh yes, I’ve done this. I made my GM chops running classic BRP Call of Cthulhu, a system and milieu that tends to “buffer” bad GM handouts mainly by the short lifespans of the characters, so when I started running Delta Green as a D20 Call of Cthulhu game I naturally let some of my generous habits out for a bit.

In the words of the inimitable Spleen: BIG MISTAKE!

So far the only thing that has saved my bacon is that the group as a whole is a very good, tightly-knit one that seems to understand that munchkinism at the expense of the others isn’t a good thing, coupled with the fact that any secret grant of goodies is kept tightly to the chest of these paranoia-obsessed players (well, it *is* Delta Green).

I think there’s a lot to be said for the old White Box D&D idea that powerful items have their own ego and agendas (an idea right out of the Eternal Champion stories). The Holy Avenger will naturally cause it’s owner much inconvenience as it precipitates disaster in the pursuit of its own agenda, whatever that is. Easy enough to administer – simply tell the player that the price for any item’s huge bonus/special power is that the player must act on occasional notes passed or the device will steadily become less and less magical as it begins to sulk.

Some chance to sacrifice the item to the good of the party – with the consequences of not doing so being hard – is GM gold.

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On February 6, 2012 @ 9:28 am

@Mike Matkin – Like it, but then there’s always gonna be a Boromir…

#14 Comment By Razjah On February 6, 2012 @ 9:55 am

@Roxysteve – Sulking magic items… I’m not sure that it something I want to GM. I prefer less powerful magic items, but ones that can always do something with no baggage.

But then again, I hate the idea of a +N magic item.

To bring this on topic: I think circumstance can play a huge role in an item. If the players are 6th level and go out of their way to take down a huge ancient red dragon through a lot of prep work and a huge amount of luck. They can find a +1 Vorpal Sword. I think some very powerful gear is a great reward for doing something that is insanely dangerous.

#15 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 6, 2012 @ 10:22 am

I’ve reneged on a deal, but I talked to the player about it, and we agreed that it was overpowering. So we put together a plan to have it disappeared such that it didn’t disrupt the game too much.

The key is to talk to the player about it. Tell him or her that the Macguffin of Doom is overpowered, and is sucking everyone else’s fun out of the game.

And if your players don’t trust you to do the right thing, then perhaps you should find out why they don’t…

#16 Comment By jbeard565 On February 6, 2012 @ 10:24 am

Of course I had this problem a few times when I first started DM’ing back in the AD&D 2.0 days. So when my BIG campaign got going, I made sure to have an environment where I could reasonably remove any problem items from the party, and they would more or less expect it to happen.

In this case, the party regularly encountered thieves, or were overpowered (temporarily) by other thugs or big bad Necromancers or what have you. Each of these moments gives you an opportunity to have some NPC run off with a powerful item or two (which is then sold on the black market), and at the same time builds up a list of evil NPC’s that the players will be happy to catch up with later.

Having the item sold off on the black market, means that it is essentially lost forever to the player, if it’s too big a problem — else you can have it recoverable when the party has reached a more appropriate level.

In either event, you’ve gained more gris for the story mill, and developed some NPCs to fill out the world with.

#17 Comment By IcebergTitanic On February 6, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

I had the exact scenario in one of my early D&D games described there. A low-level paladin got a limited wish, and wanted a +5 Holy Avenger. Having already dug the hole of giving WAY too much of a reward to a low-level character, I just ran with it.

As expected, the sword was way too powerful.

So word soon got out about a ‘noob with a really fancy sword, and the PC’s found themselves being hounded by thieves, other religious organizations, and the Paladin’s own church, all wanting to get their hands on the sword. In the end, the Paladin ended up giving it to the church in exchange for quite a bit of prestige and some nice, level-appropriate gear.

But what I liked about it was that the choice wasn’t just taken from the PC. The player could have continued trying to keep the weapon, but they were finding themselves more and more hampered by outside interference, and by parties that he couldn’t justify using the sword against! In the end, sacrificing the sword became the Player’s decision, rather than GM fiat.

#18 Comment By evil On February 6, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

Lots of great responses…. I usually take the approach Roxysteve mentioned; make the item sentient. Not only can this work in your favor by offering opinions, red herrings, and other information to your players, but it can also be a great way to get players on side storylines.

I’m all for taking away what I’ve given, but to quote Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: Bust a deal and spin the wheel! Go for it if you accept the consequences.

#19 Comment By Roxysteve On February 6, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Yes, but I think there are often graceful ways of reneging on a deal that can make that painful conversation (in which no-one will win) perhaps less necessary, especially if the problem is an insanely overpowered magical item.

The player might not even realize the “sulking +5 sorry +4 sorry +3 Sword of Smitery” is being subtly nerfed back into a more reasonable form if it is done right.

Of course, if you can come up with a quest in which the end is to plunge said sword into a rock so the future King of Lancre can pull it out years from now to demonstrate his fitness to rule, so much the better. No player worth their salt would resist the urge to be in on such a meta-world moment.

But if the game-buster is less a material adjunct and more a character tweak, then you are in a tougher position, I agree.

I love Walt’s articles. It always seems there’s a story behind them that would be worth hearing. Walt’s games seem to me those in which a high-level sorcerer might ask to raise a tower and a cohort of non-human creatures one week and be granted that power, only for Walt to sit clutching his head and moaning as he was witness to the utter destruction of the curtain wall of Helm’s Deep (the maps of which took him days to draw and index) a few games later.

#20 Comment By Tomcollective On February 6, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

An old friend and I have a saying:

Game balance is 10 more orks on the table.

I agree with the general spirit of the suggestions. You can take away in game, without making the player aware you’re taking away.

Star Wars D6, a system I always quite liked, had a huge problem with Jedi being hugely overpowered when compared to any other party members, or any THING else in the game. So the characters, just playing the game, were overpowered. I did the only thing I could, I would make them to spend their force points. In other words, I would make their life hell. (Best example: demolishing a building with said Jedi still in it.)

Think of it this way, if a player has a game breaking item or power, match the game to the new item or power. Yeah, there will still be mooks and easy kills, but the stuff that comes out of the woodwork should now require the player use this new item or power in order to deal with it. Even better, if you can create something more badass than your player’s new badass item or power. Best, if this thing requires the player to sacrifice problematic item or power in order to save the town/kingdom/world.

And remember, if you don’t get at least one “HOLY CRAP!” from your players, you’re not doing your job. You’re the GM. You are God. Whatever your players can do, you can do better. Make them work, and you can get away with anything.

#21 Comment By Silveressa On February 7, 2012 @ 3:25 am

Another aspect of the fun many people over look is the GM’s fun factor. Sometimes giving an upgrade to the PC/party can not only imbalance the game, but impact the amount of fun the campaign is for the GM to continue running.

Just like players, if the Gm isn’t having fun doing the campaign, her (or his) frustration/lack of enthusiasm will bleed over to the players and can run a campaign into the ground inside of a few sessions.

Increasing the difficulty of encounters to balance out the newly acquired uber item/s is usually easily enough done (I.E Toms 10 more orcs on the table)but it can alter the feeling of an adventure drastically into something the Gm never intended and doesn’t find fun/interesting to run.

For example when increasing the challenge level of a low to mid range encounter, you quickly go from an isolated group of ragtag bandits comprised of the survivors of a fire at the local orphanage a few months ago; to a surprisingly adept and well equipped mercenary squad that realistically would be waylaying the merchant caravans of the main trade routes rather then harassing a small back water hamlet.

However, depending on the item/s in question the Gm can also potentially add an unforeseen flaw or side effect to it that makes the item less unbalancing and likely to only be used in the most dire of circumstances rather then every possible encounter.

For example a magical undead slaying sword may have the heretofore unknown side effect of attracting all of the undead in a 10 mile radius for the next 48 hours after it’s been used in combat.

Something more high tech like a lance of mecha could have a huge upkeep cost in hard to find parts, (caused by the factory that produces them recently being destroyed during the groups next adventure?)or a little known design flaw that requires frequent replacement of servo joints due to hydraulic over pressure under combat conditions.

When it comes to things less tangible (like psi abilities or newly acquired super powers) adding in unforeseen flaws can become more tricky, in which case it’s usually best discussing with the character how their ability x is unbalancing the game by removing the challenge of many encounters or making it impossible for the rest of the party to effectively contribute to the scenes.

Most players I’ve dealt with when offered an alternative, (or alteration to the ability to give it some drawbacks or hindrances) will usually go along with the change rather then risk the others players losing interest in the campaign or no longer wishing to game with them.

When faced with the possibility of no game at all, many players are willing to make surprising sacrifices to keep a failing campaign alive or ensure their character is still welcome at the table.

Once the player agrees to the change, the ability in question can then manifest an unforeseen side effect or undergo a mysterious change (Caused by illness or a villains machinations in game to keep with continuity and make the transition less of a campaign upset.

#22 Comment By Tsenn On February 7, 2012 @ 4:05 am

I like what IcebergTitanic did. I also agree with Tomcollective, but on the condition that the new challenges aren’t solely about the new thing.

I once gave a Star Wars crew a 0.1 hyperdrive. It was a great advantage in helping defend against the new galactic threat, but it also helped get them in trouble faster than ever before!

Talking with the player is almost always the best way to go. Be prepared to offer a compromise, substitute, or extra moment of awesome.

#23 Comment By mythusmage On February 7, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

There are two things to remember here; one is that the story never ends; second, that complications always arise. And if your players get the impression you’re out to get them, agree with them. But play honestly and avoid metagaming.

Let your villains have a stab at the maguffin, but limit what they do to what they can reasonably do. No using GM knowledge to give your baddie an edge. And if your players out smart you, then they out smart you and win the day.

#24 Comment By TheHydraDM On February 8, 2012 @ 6:17 am

I’m reminded of the core wealth mechanic of 1st edition (and by extension many MMORPGs that copied it) – give the player a ton of stuff, and find a way to keep it flowing from their hands and back into the faceless NPC coffers of the world at roughly the rate it arrived. Class training costs are an obvious example of handing out money that doesn’t actually amount to money, but I’m reminded of a certain character’s magic shield falling from his arm and rolling down an irretrievably deep crevice when he tripped in a certain cavern. Or when some rather snazzy swords, including a Holy Avenger, were transported to another plane and transformed back into plain old unenchanted iron in Gygax’s own AD&D game.

As long as you throw more stuff at the players I think it’s fair to give and take in equal measure, and a lot of the taking is best done in the context of the story, not of taking a player aside and going “you know what, this item is too damaging to the gameplay”.

#25 Comment By Sarlax On February 8, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

I think there are two things you can giveth: Rulings and resources. They can blend together. Use tact when correcting them. Of course, the goal is fun.*

If you gave a player a favorable ruling on some question, or created a house-rule, I think you’re on pretty good ground to amend it, but it’s important to discuss the amendment with the player. The discussion should actually be two-way. See if there’s a better ruling that you can both live with. That discussion keeps the player involved, which will usually reduce or eliminate the tension that would otherwise arise from a fiat ruling.

If you’ve given the player an in-game resource, discussions are often appropriate, so the abuse advice would apply. However, I think taking a resource should be achieved in a reasonable in-game manner. If you don’t like the +5 Holy Avenger being in the same, you should find a reason to get rid of it that doesn’t look like a hack. Maybe have the PC seen using it publicly. In the next session, the PC has to deal with thieves, etc. who want the sword and can probably get it. I would try not to be heavy handed, and take the resource in a way that gives the player choices. In the sword example, the player might hide the sword until he’s high enough level to defend it, or sell it off, or donate it to a more powerful hero, or just take his chances.

A tricky thing may be when a ruling results in unbalanced resource, since you need to correct both.

*On fun: If the players are having fun, then the ruling or resource doesn’t need to be changed. But the GM is a player too. If he’s created rule or resource which is fun for everyone else but gives him a headache, it’s got to be fixed. The players might love having a time machine, but it’s probably a pain for the GM.

#26 Comment By Necrognomicon On February 9, 2012 @ 4:23 am

Items like Holy Avengers especially are a double-edged sword both literally and figuratively:

Besides just making them more of a target to the big bads, one way to deal with items that aren’t practical to make evil or sentient is to make the former owner a Paladin of a *different* Good deity.

While their church would never attack nor deny help to a Good party, the common followers of a religion aren’t always so altruistic. The party might subsequently encounter cold shoulders, higher prices at shops, inns with ‘no vacancy but room in the barn’, etc. While this obviously doesn’t present quite the problem an evil or sentient item does, it can lead to some interesting choices from the PCs.

#27 Comment By E-l337 On February 9, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

As anyone who’s played d20 Future knows, bringing a mecha to a gunfight can be pretty unfair – especially if you’ve allowed one of your PCs to have their own large-sized variant, despite several drawbacks.

Does it make fights easier? Oh, indefinitely. Was it a mistake in allowing that player to use it, however? That I would disagree on, because I think it can actually make for some very interesting situations.

I have ‘taken away’ this mecha on a few occasions. Either an area is too small for it to operate in effectively, or in another case, the PCs were using it to power something else. It made for some very exciting action once the pilot was separated – and nearly died on a few occasions as well.

But what about magic items? Okay. Say you give out a +5 Holy Avenger a few levels too early, and it’s making gameplay unbalanced. “Curse” the weapon. Have someone steal it. I am of the opinion that removal of the item permanently is a huge no-no – it should in fact be used to further the story in some way, while adding for an extra bit of excitement.

Don’t think of it as having to earn your item again. Think of it as having to prove your worthiness in owning the item in question.

That’s how I like to look at it, anyway.


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