How do you handle PCs who seem to be immune to magic?

Ask the gamemasters

A recent inquiry in Ask The GMs asked us,

Hi! I’ve just started an AD&D campaign where the all the PCs have got really good saving throws. Less than 50% of any spells I cast on them will work on the Dwarfs and Halfling Priests (3 of them). That’s too good for first level characters. How should I deal with that in a high magic setting like Forgotten Realms? What about when they reach high levels; they will be pretty much immune to magic?

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer

I no longer have access to most of my AD&D sources, so I’m unsure just how much help I can be to our hapless DM in resolving this particular conundrum. About the best that I can do is to offer some generic and systemless suggestions, seasoned here and there with a couple of ideas from D&D 3.5, and hope they can be translated into AD&D terms by our enquiring DM (and anyone else who’s interested).

If anyone has any more specific advice relating to AD&D, I would encourage you to help out by posting your thoughts to the comments for this post.

I want to start by suggesting that I detect a strong odour of collusion amongst your players, who are probably reacting to a demonstrated preference for a specific mode of targeting them in your campaigns. If you’ve been hitting them too hard in the past with attacks that require saving throws, this sort of reaction is a natural evolution, but even so it seems to be a remarkable coincidence that all your PCs have this characteristic in common.

At first glance, this is tantamount to a declaration of war against the GM, and much of the advice I am about to offer can be viewed as an escalation of hostilities. While it might come to that, I am sure Johnn will offer some more diplomatic avenues for consideration; these should definitely be employed before the more extreme suggestions that I am going to make. It might be that it is all a coincidence, or simply a case of convergent evolution in response to a previously-experienced GMing style. If that’s the circumstance, you should moderate the degree to which you implement the following advice.

I note you mention a high-magic game setting; it’s quite possible that your players have had a paranoid overreaction. Consider this an opportunity, not a burden!

Target The PC’s Deficiencies

In all forms of D&D, high Saving Throws derive from specific characteristics having high values. In AD&D, as I recall, the problem is somewhat exacerbated by racial bonuses, but setting that aside, the first technique for handling this problem is that having one thing high implies another is low – which means the characters have weak spots that can be targeted, especially at lower levels.

The attributes that are going to be vulnerable in 3.x, (and, if memory serves, in AD&D as well) are Strength, Intelligence, and Charisma:

  • Strength can be targeted by confining or restraining the characters with nets, lassos, and the like. Wrestling matches are another means. Swimming is strength dependant in 3.x, I’m not sure about AD&D. Outside the combat arena, you can manouver them by making selected doors to heavy to move, weights too heavy to lift, etc. You should strictly enforce carrying capacities and make sure that every scrap of weight is accounted for. If they attempt to get around this weakness with beasts of burden, steal or kill the beasts and the goods that they are carrying, which WON’T have unusually high saving rolls.
  • Intelligence can be targeted through deceptions, lies, and outright fraud. You don’t think that word will quickly get around that these people are thick as posts? Psionics is another option, and one that I have a personal dislike for; if you don’t share that position, feel free to exploit it. Puzzles and conundrums should become featured elements of the campaign. Of course, your players might  be smart enough to see through the flimsy lines of argument – but either they are not roleplaying their characters properly (which should be penalised), or they will be forced into making intelligence rolls for their characters.
  • Charisma means they are vulnerable to non-magical charms and seductions, and should quickly acquire a reputation for being soft touches, easy prey for a sob story – again, unless they are roleplaying especially badly, in which case penalties may be called for. Between this and the Intelligence factor, several people should have the PCs wrapped around their little fingers in short order. Admittedly, this is an extreme reaction; I dislike taking control of their characters away from the players, but if they are actively trying to take advantage of that dislike, they’ve asked for it!

Player: “I’m suspicious of the old dude with the pointed teeth – he’s trying too hard to be charming, I think he’s a Vampire.”

GM, rolling dice: “No, you don’t think of that, and you trust him implicitly. You are captivated by his charm, grace, and wit, and are sure he can invest your wealth far more effectively than you can.”

Player: “Why on earth would I think that?”

GM: “What’s your INT and CHAR again?”

Player: “Oh…”

NB: It should go without saying that the LAST thing you should permit is for the characters to get their hands on magic items that make up for these deficiencies. No way, no how.

Keep The Switch Flipped

Okay, so the characters are relatively immune to magic. That’s not just enemy magic, that’s ALL magic. Bless. Cure Light Wounds. Protection from evil. Resurrection. Wish. Potions. You name it.

A more typical interpretation is that the characters are only immune to spells that have a saving throw, and they can forgo that saving throw if they wish (i.e. for spells that are cast by an ally). In the middle of a fight, they are going to stop and think about whose spell it is that’s about to affect them? Not likely!

If they permit ANY magic to affect them, ALL magic should affect them until the start of their next action. Maybe they should even have to concentrate (make an INT roll?) to change their magic-vulnerability status while in battle – unless they forgo a round of attacks.

Sauce For The Goose

Another point to make is that you should never ignore the potential of NPCs who are just as resistant as the PCs!

Always remember that you are both playing by the same rules. Anything they use against you, you should be able to use against them, and vice versa!

Indirect Applications Of Magic

Consider the following: don’t cast fireballs at resistant foes, cast them at the strategically-placed barrels of gunpowder. If a spell creates an acid rain, who’s to say that it’s the RAIN that’s magical? Maybe it’s the clouds. A Dig spell doesn’t have to hit the characters to open a pit beneath their feet. Look for INDIRECT applications of magic that can partially or completely bypass their immunities.

Smart enemies will deliberately avoid wasting attacks on strong defences; once the characters get a reputation for being resistant to magic, they will find other ways.

One of the most obvious is having your NPC spellcasters cast spells that augment a strike force instead of harming the PCs.

Reverse Your Roles

Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. Assume you are a player designing a character, and the GM has a habit of giving his NPCs really good saving throws that make them virtually immune to magic. How would you deal with the problem?

Target the source of their resistance

Finally, consider the potential for attacks that drain the characteristics that are giving them these high saves in the first place. Then strike while they are vulnerable!

Hopefully, these solutions will point you in the right direction. Now, it’s over to my co-author for his input…

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s Answer

I like Mike’s answer of having the world react to the PCs. Unless you are doing pure dungeon crawls and each situation can never have foreknowledge via word of mouth, reputation, scouts, villain planning and whatnot, then have NPCs update their tactics once the PCs make their magic immunities known.

Curses

A curse is a great way to reduce abilities, and they spawn quests for removal – a double win. Random curses would be unfair, but curses caused by adversaries looking for advantage is great gameplay. Perhaps foes drop a cursed sword down the monster hole, which the critter greedily adds to his horde just as the PCs are about to crawl in. A mysterious gift, when opened, sprays unwary PCs with curses. An ambush is specifically designed to get curses successfully placed on the PCs. Do sleeping PCs get full magic saves in 1st edition? I can’t remember.

Critters

With rust monsters, disenchanters and other creatures designed for meta-gaming reasons, how about creating a magic saving throw eating creature? Let the PCs hear about this beast in gossip and rumours first. Then have victims start appearing with horrible stories. If the PCs do not investigate, provide them incentive, such as a bounty or quest.

Do not force a meeting through a random encounter or pre-determined collision. If the PCs avoid the creature then let it lay low for a bit. Then look for ways to bring the PCs to that area for other reasons, at which time encounters with the creature for any reason are fair game. By then, hopefully it has had time to breed.

Getting young sucks

In 1st edition I think there are negative age modifiers on INT and WIS for young folk. Hit the PCs with an anti-ghost. Each time a PC is hit he gets younger. This makes more sense in a way as killing PCs this way is faster than making them get older. Perhaps the god of undead sees this flaw in the ghosts he’s created and starts pumping out anti-ghosts instead.

Create trade-offs

If the PCs are stacked up for magic immunity they might be tricked into disadvantageous trade-offs. Since the characters are already immune to magic, give them treasure that further increases their magic saving throws but makes them weaker in other areas (what have you got to lose?).

Conversely, offer treasure that boosts other abilities in exchange for magic saving throw reduction.

In either case, it’s all PC choice and your group will be ok with that.

Use more anti-magic fields

If the PCs are immune to magic then get rid of magic altogether for awhile. Put in anti-magic fields and null magic zones. This means the flora and fauna will need to resort to other defenses and abilities. Do this to provide in-game reasons why fewer attacks are using magic these days so it doesn’t seem as arbitrary to the players. Yes, the anti-magic zones are arbitrary, but if you forewarn the PCs or create an anti-magic villain then you address things at the campaign level.

Check for house rules

Those are a few GM vs. PCs ideas. I’d also take a look at the campaign setup just to make sure you are not sabotaging yourself. Do you have any house rules in effect that impact magic saving throws? For example, do you allow the monty haul stat rolling method from Unearthed Arcana? That’ll generate some great PC ability scores. Remove this as an option and revert back to 3d6.

Any other house rules that have crept into your campaigns over the years and are no longer questioned? If so, revert back to the official rules.

Check for optional supplements

Are you using any books whose rules are boosting saving throws? Remove these from the campaign next time. Be careful of suddenly removing them mid-campaign. That’s going to anger your group unless you have a great in-game reason for it.

Long-term – target other saving throws to create group balance

I like Mike’s line of thinking that your players are reacting to previous campaigns that exposed too much magic saving throw weakness. Create a long term strategy to expose other areas of weakness for which the players should design good defenses or attacks into their PCs. This won’t help your campaign today, but if you are playing with the same group for a long time then take this long-term approach in parallel with other short term reactions.

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