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D&D 3E
deus ex machina 
7th-Aug-2007 08:29 am
how do you all feel about using a deus ex machina? i'm not sure i like the idea myself and i've never seen it used in a game where it didn't elicit suppressed groans from the players. i wonder if you think it would ever be appropriate? any one ever use it or been in a game where it was used to good effect? i'm thinking specifically about divine intervention here, but i'd be interested in hearing about any sort of improbable instant solution used in a game.
7th-Aug-2007 12:39 pm (UTC)
To me, running a game means I'm telling a story. A deus ex machina is generally understood to be a bad way to end a story, so I try to avoid them. Since I run published modules, this actually isn't much of a problem, because the endings have to get past editors, who probably dislike deus ex machina even more than I do, since it's their job to do so.

Consider that the purpose of a deus ex machina is to end the story, separate from any possible action of the PCs or villains--whether either side has done well or not, at some point, the game's over, and planning to do it that way means the players couldn't affect the ending of the game. It's just another kind of railroad, and players tend to dislike railroads.
7th-Aug-2007 01:03 pm (UTC)
From wikipedia for the underschooled: "The phrase deus ex machina ['de.ʊs eks 'maːkʰi.naː] (literally "god out of a machine") describes an unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot (e.g. the rope that binds the hero's hands is luckily chewed off by a rat, or an angel suddenly appearing to solve problems)."

I use things like these occasionally when I need them, but more to the point I tuck a few in my pocket so that they are not as dramatically different once I introduce them. If you make some kind of otherworldly connection to one specific cause, then there is an explanation that ties them together.
7th-Aug-2007 01:20 pm (UTC)
Back in the days before Wikipedia, I learned this term in a college course teaching elements of drama and theater. Deus ex machina is "God in the machine." It refers to any external device that pulls the main characters' fats out of the frier, so to speak and does not imply ending a story in this manner. IIRC, Forgotten Realms did use this technique numerous times through their NPC hero band, the Harpers. Anytime the PCs were overpowered by the bad guys in a FR module, they were rescued by the Harpers. The Harpers didn't ever defeat the bad guys for you; they kept the PCs from getting hosed, and that counts as "deus ex machina."

If you ever watched the sitcom Get Smart, you would recognize the arrival of every agent of Control on the scene just before Agent 86 got hosed by the agents of KAOS as a deus ex machina (that was the example our drama instructor used).
7th-Aug-2007 02:10 pm (UTC)
I'd never use such a device. It negates the sense of risk that comes as part and parcel of the heroics in the game. As a result, your players may feel cheated out of an opportunity to do something cool, take the spotlight, etc.

It also means the DM hasn't done his homework, and put in encounter too lethal for his PCs without 1) conveying the severity of the situation and 2) giving the players the chance to flee under their own power. My recommendation: avoid at all costs.
7th-Aug-2007 02:45 pm (UTC)
Deus ex machina is problematic because really it is a form of railroading--you're removing any input on the game from the players, instead having some other force take over and change things. Thus, in D&D, they generally shouldn't be used.

However, I would argue that certain subtle bits of railroading are okay from time to time, assuming your group doesn't mind. In which case, it could work in a specific situation I suppose.

Are you thinking of a particular example you'd like us to comment on?
7th-Aug-2007 02:57 pm (UTC)
Hm... Well, Deus ex Machina is a pretty lame way to end just about anything, even Greek drama, Aeschylus notwithtstanding. It removes the importance from the characters, and makes everything into a cosmic event. So ending a campaign on it would be kind of lame and anticlimactic.

But, hey, if you aren't ending things, then it can become something cool. What if, by way of for instance, the players are stuck in a dungeon, locked up without gear, stripped naked? The spellcasters are bound and gagged, and slavering gnolls are waiting until the water boils to make a nice hero stew. After trying everything, the paladin finally breaks down and prays. Boom. His god, or an agent thereof, comes in and lets them out. Done right, it becomes a scene that players will remember as the time all that crap they did for the gods finally meant something, and will make them more easily motivated to serve that church or the goals of that god.

The key is adventuring afterward, I think. If D.E.M. is an ending, it takes all resolution and heroism out of the hands of the characters. Used as a last resort device, and done right, it becomes more like the gods honoring heroic deeds to allow you to go on to do more.
7th-Aug-2007 04:19 pm (UTC)
It really depends on whether the device is used to end an adventure or to save PCs from a poor fate resulting from a few bad die rolls or something. I have to say that I disagree with the assessment of mike_brendan of the DM who put in an encounter that was too lethal not doing his homework. Sometimes, things happen that aren't expected. When that happens, the DM has the choice of ending the campaign with a TPK and starting a new campaign with new PCs, changing the nature of the campaign by following the PCs into their afterlives (maybe running Ghostwalk or something), or coming up with a plot device that saves the PCs' butts. That really depends on the expectations of the players and how they are likely to take the deaths of their characters. Some DMs might fudge the situation a little (make it believable, though); some might let it stand and get lynched by his players.
7th-Aug-2007 08:22 pm (UTC)
I tend to agree. In the case of a TPK, there are few other ways besides a deus ex to save your entire campaign from falling apart, not to mention pissing off your whole gaming group. And yes, it's not always lack of DM preparedness, sometimes it's also a combination of really bad PC decisions (not reckless, just unfortunate) and really bad dice rolls.

Deus ex machina is probably like any tool, it could be used to positive or negative effect. D&D is a universe that is far closer to powerful gods and monsters than most other forms of literature (where deus ex would be considered "copping out"). In D&D, having a God come and rescue you needn't be a cop out - the God would have an agenda for doing so, and that right there leads to a whole new set of cool adventures (as lonevettar already mentioned).
8th-Aug-2007 06:34 pm (UTC)
Gwalchmai, it's very true that things happen when they're not expected, but I've also seen situations where DMs put in something they thought was "cool," but not take existing factors (like CRs and party level to start with) into account. Typically this can happen with inexperienced DMs, but I've seen experienced ones do the same.

That said, fubars can come from both directions, with the players setting themselves up for disaster by not being prepared or having bad dice karma. And the DM does need to be properly preapred for that. Any DM can and does fudge a die roll, but both sides are responsible for fair play. The game involves putting fictional characters in dangerous situations, and sometimes the heroes do lose (and lose badly). I think ignoring that element is as much a disservice to the players as being so impartial to the players' situation that the balance tips to the 'killer campaign side.'

(bear in mind that I'm also looking at this situation from a writer's perspective -- and I'm not fully a pro at it, so let me pass you the salt).

However, using a D.E.M. is a DM's call, and I'll have to disagree with Istandcorrupted, as I don't think any real good comes from using a deus ex. It pulls players out of the story supporting the game and draws the focus away from their actions. They no govern their fates, and it can set a bad precedent both in and out of game if used with any sort of frequency. If you have good players at your table (and by that I also mean good sports), they can take a TPK with good grace, knowing it was either bad luck or bad planning that led to their downfall. Now if it happens more than once, there may be a problem.
8th-Aug-2007 07:58 pm (UTC)
I agree with you on the point that FUBARS do happen from all directions, and typically, I am the type of DM who will let the results stand as they come out, rarely using a deus ex machina - because the PCs are supposed to be the heroes. On that we do agree. I tend to disagree that the DEM takes the PCs out of the story entirely. Used judiciously, I think that the DEM is a handy tool that can be used to enhance the story. From a writer's perspective, DEM has been used many times in the great classical literature as far back as the Middle Ages. If I had more room, I'd quote some passages - Lancelot being rescued from certain death by magical agents, Conan, all the great heroes. In fact, the DEM can be used not only to save PCs' butts but also as a plot device to further adventures. Imagine the NPC who saves the PCs from certain doom only to inform them of what they want in return... There is a time and place to use the DEM. It's all about judgement and what the DM thinks is best for the campaign and the players.
7th-Aug-2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
I have had a "deus ex" ready for most of my games should a total party kill happen. In each case thou it was not a keep the party from death, rather just a chance to go back and correct things that they failed to finish. Never had to nor wanted to use it, characters die, and short of the TPK you can keep things running somehow. Use it if needed to keep the game going, but only as a last resort is my opinion.
7th-Aug-2007 05:37 pm (UTC)
What about deus ex machinas (I have no idea what the plural should be) gone wrong? In lonevettar's example, what if the agent of whichever god is kinda incompetent and the party ends up accidentally transported to some other plane? I could see being rescued from an impossible situation as an excellent opportunity for weird things to happen.
8th-Aug-2007 02:32 am (UTC) - Deus Ex - COWZ
If you're the DM, you decide when it's appropriate, however I have a rather opinionated idea of when... You know that player who has been bending every rule given, tried abusing the fellow players, and has thus far tried stealing everyone's thunder, and now has a fair useless meat shield - and the character is supposed to be a band aid - COW. Demon Space Cows have no applicable saves, and are cannot deal anything except fatal (yet hilarious) damage. Just a thought..

8th-Aug-2007 04:01 am (UTC)
how do you all feel about using a deus ex machina?

It has its place. Off the top of my head:

1: When the story has gotten stale, and you need a sudden change in direction. ("Ok, we're going to be pirates now!" "what about the princess we were rescuing?" "Oh, a dragon came and saved her.")

2: To launch a story. ("Zeus walks out from behind a tree, conjures a thunderstorm that causes the 8,342 ogres to run away, then turns to you and says 'hey, think the King wants to know about that?'")

3: As an alternative to game-ending death. ("Ok, so Bob falls down, unconscious. Hmm... Ok, you all wake up on the side of the road. Three of the King's Knights found you, finished off the enemy, and have tended to your wounds. No, you don't get XP for that.)

Most mature RPGs have rules for divine intervention--not like Miracle, but a random roll to see what happens. (In In Nomine, a roll of 1-1-1 (3) or 6-6-6 causes a minor or major intervention of heaven or hell.)
8th-Aug-2007 06:57 pm (UTC)
Hmmm... I think I'm following a more strict definition of deus ex machina than others here. In my earlier postings, I mean a more literal definition of the term, where players literally have no way out and get rescued by higher powers for no real reason (e.g. "Medea").

What Planesdragon cites in example number three above is something I would consider a "reasonable contingency." Wish I could think of a better way to say it, but I can't. If said example came from an encounter that occurred on, say, a major road, then yes it *is* likely that it may be patrolled. And while it may be just bailing the players out of a TPK, it's reasonable enough not to suspend player disbelief (especially if the DM mentions the fact that Royal Knights are in the area).

Likewise I don't consider it a deus ex if one of the players goes back to get some high-powered help and succeeds in getting it.
8th-Aug-2007 08:04 pm (UTC)
I got the impression that several posters had taken the term "deus" a little bit literally. In my campaigning, I do not have much direct deific intervention. Clerics cast spells that the call "miracles" demonstrating the power of God on Earth (Dark Ages Britain - fantasy). And that's about it. Gods don't look down on their followers and turn the wheels of fate to favor them. They just don't care. So, PCs are pretty much on their own.

However, reasonable NPC intervention can be used to propel campaign goals as well as save PCs' butts when play goes awry, or even when you as the DM need to direct the plot in light of PCs' success or failure at a given goal. I would never rule out a DEM. I don't use them much, but I would never rule it out.
8th-Aug-2007 09:52 pm (UTC)
Well there is alot of replies so I did skim them so sorry if i'm repeating anything...

Simply put: Use it if it's part of the story and only to overcome something that is completely out of the range of your characters. Such as your characters are facing a God...they are level 10 characters with no chance. Have them fight a few rounds to get close to death and then have other gods show up to put a stop to this god. This does "Pull them out of the frier" but they will see it as an impossable situation to overcome. Then the new gods can release some sensative information and be on their way. It's not perfect but can be used properly if its part of the story plot (Basically this is the ONLY way the characters can go up against this challange and survive it to throw this into the mix).
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