View Full Version : DM Help The Deus Ex Machina: When is it appropriate?

Stealth Marmot
2016-12-05, 07:43 AM
I recently had a situation that was overall well received but clearly something of a Deus Ex Machina, in fact I have had a couple in my Pathfinder game.

The first Deus Ex Machina was a spirit named Elwood. His entire deal is that he is the spirit of the Elder Wood, an old and ancient willow tree deep in the woods. As a spirit, he is able to travel anywhere within a mile or so of a willow tree, which is most of the forest. He has very limited ability to affect any sort of combat but can command the help of forest animals and such, and he was responsible for "hiring" my group to rescue a unicorn. (He would show them the way back to town since they had gotten swept off the path). This is a character I designed to basically be able to go anywhere at any time and provide easy exposition.

My last session had me in a situation where I though the players had some gear they had to sell and they needed to stock up or sell stuff before they went to the next part of the story, plus I had to introduce a new player. I decided that the player was heading to the same place, but was given a ride by another recurring character I made up. This character, who I named Egan, is basically Oaken (The shopkeeper from Frozen), but he has a wagon for selling all sorts of stuff, including a great deal of magical items, and it is based on the sapient pearwood box from Discworld, including walking around on a bunch of legs. It also had extradimensional space and best of all, was actually the first wish from a Genie who actually hung out around the shop named Ray (His actual name is several more syllables but it begins with "Ray"). The genie only pops up when needed. The player who came along with the shop and happened into the players' way was actually a gnome bard. Egan, who is also a gnome but walks on stilts so he can chat with medium sized people easier when needed, told the gnome bard the story that he came upon a genie with the whole three wish idea. Now genies have the ability to grant a wish as they see fit, so when Egan wished for the best merchandise wagon, he got the sapient pearwood one that could walk by itself and had extradimensional space. His SECOND wish was to always be where he was needed, so this is the reason I could have him appear as an easy merchant shop when needed, and his third wish was the genie to be his friend. Ray the genie decided he would grant that wish by hanging around him and help guard his wagon for the rest of Egan's days. Since genies are effectively immortal, the lifetime of a gnome is not very long to them, plus while he is acting as his friend he is still in the process of fulfilling his last wish so the cycle doesn't reset.

The group was quite entertained by the character and he seemed to be memorable for the group, but I'm wondering about adding these characters and how their obvious appearing when I want factors into being such an obvious Deus ex Machina. When is it appropriate to add a Deus ex Machina and characters that are inexplicably able to appear where you want and when you want? How does that affect verisimilitude? Do you think it will make the players feel like I'll just pull whatever I feel like out of my bag and their actions have no affect on the world?

I've played in games with so many DM fiats and Deus Ex Machinas that it felt like I was just along for the ride, not actually affecting anything. How do you prevent that, and do you have examples of Deus Ex Machinas that you have used that seemed to help? What sort of rules or guidelines do you use for your Deus Ex Machinas?

And since we will be using that term a lot, is everyone okay with just referring to them as "DeMs"?

2016-12-05, 09:14 AM
IMO Never. I'd rather die than have the game experience cheapened by a deus ex machina. It's a lot easier for me to make a new character (and it's fine because I'm always having new ideas) than for the DM to make a whole new game.

2016-12-05, 09:29 AM
My mood always drops the moment it seems like the dm is favouring us in a bad situation. Having a loved character die is better to me than even having that character convenienced by dm fiat.

2016-12-05, 09:35 AM
The main objections people have to the plot device in writing are that it's often contrived and deflates the plot by introducing a force that wasn't supposed to be there until the writer needed a way to get the main characters out of a jam. RPG players add the further objections that it also removes the focus from them and is often a way to showcase pet NPCs the DM is fond of. If a deus ex machina can be done without these things, perhaps it could be appropriate, but I'm not sure it could avoid them while still being a deus ex machina.

2016-12-07, 11:31 AM
Depends on the use. As long as the merchant remains just an interesting/convenient random encounter, he probably remains well loved. The spirit sounds like the party will level past its ability to serve as a Deus Ex device before long and simply become a knowledgeable NPC the characters can get information from. As the others have said, I'd refrain from using either of them to bail the party out of a life and death jam though.

2016-12-07, 01:00 PM
With most RPGs the player-characters should be the center of attention, not NPCs or GMPCs. Many of the players I have run games for have reacted negatively to doing DeMs. So I don't. I let the P-Cs be the focus because roleplaying.

Now! If DeMs are considered fun and entertaining to your gaming group, then do that. Fun is why we play.

Stealth Marmot
2016-12-07, 01:40 PM
The question is, are my examples full on DeMs or simple contrivances?

John Longarrow
2016-12-07, 03:36 PM
Both sound like the kind of thing that the players can interact with.
Neither sounds like its something that doesn't fit the setting and is their ONLY to save the PCs.

If they had never heard of the spirit before, it comes in and defeats a BBEG, then moves the PCs further along on their quest, the Players would probably have a problem. Since it is a quest giver and the PCs don't have to interact with it unless they want to, its just a random NPC who offers jobs.

Real question becomes "Do the players have a choice".

An example of what some people would considers a DEM and others think is just rat bastard DMing would be

Players are out hunting a dragon.
Powerful Erinyes devil shows up, tells them they can't beat it but if they sign a contract he'll get them the support they need. As the adventure continues the devil keeps popping up, reminding them of his offer. Players finally get to face the dragon and realize they are in WAAAAAY over their heads. Devil, sitting in the back, gives them the same offer again.

If the players accept a group of devils show up, kill the dragon, and free the party. If they don't, devil sits on the side and watches them get slaughtered.

Players had a choice before going after the dragon and were warned it was too powerful. If the players CHOOSE to go after it, the devil gives them a CHOICE about taking help. DM isn't forcing anything expect them to deal with their bad decision.

Now if the DM tossed a dragon at them that was way to powerful, realized this at the last moment and had a devil just show up with the same offer, then the PCs could be upset because it looks like the DM is trying to railroad them into becoming servants of a devil.

If the Dm tosses a dragon at the party, realizes its too strong after the first round, and has an even bigger good dragon just "Show up", most players get pissed.

Does this help illuminate your situation?

2016-12-07, 04:01 PM
I wouldn't consider them full one DeM's. They don't really have to power to save anyone, and aren't entirely contrived. How often will the PC's need outweigh those of everyone else needing a merchant with lots of exotic goods, anyways?

2016-12-07, 04:40 PM
They become DeMs when they save the characters from their decisions in a way that robs them of agency.

Say the characters enter a big combat and things start to go bad then (((POOF))) the genie/ghost appears to save the day. That, is a DeM by definition and again if your group is comfortable with that kind of thing, do it.

Contrivance? Well if the genie/ghost can be called on by the characters to provide services or items that the characters either can't or wont do, I'd call that contrivance. Does your group enjoy that? Yes? Keep it up ;)

2016-12-07, 04:58 PM
I believe a deus ex machina is only very rarely appropriate. The biggest thing is that the event should serve to advance the story, not to end it, and there needs to be very legitimate reasons why the deity in question is getting involved, but not so much as to resolve the conflict by themselves.

Stealth Marmot
2016-12-07, 07:40 PM
Thanks for the feedback.

I'll admit that I actually did do a little Railroading during the first interaction with the spirit. Specifically, the players were on a ferry being carted across a river when a huge wave hit them and sent them over a waterfall. They woke up on the riverbank several miles downriver and no knowledge of how to get back to where they were going (none of the players had knowledge (local) or Knowledge (Geography). They were in a bind where they were already answering the summons to help a town out and they needed help getting back on the road. Since the river was near a waterfall and most of the party would have a hell of a time climbing, (none of them had rope) they were more or less shoehorned into accepting his little quest to not take forever getting back to the main road. I didnt say they HAD to do what was asked technically, but reasonably speaking they were heavily pressured into making the decision. If they had decided to skip the quest given, I would have probably just made up some random encounters and have the players make survival checks to see how long it would take.

The main point of this was that of the PCs, 2 knew each other but the last one didn't know the other from backstory, so I wanted to sort of force them into a short term cooperation before they actually made it to the main story. Also it gave them enough fights to allow me to justify a level up so they came into the main story level 2 instead of 1.

The players didn't make a fuss, and I only plan to do such things really early on to sort of make the first couple of interactions a semi-backstory to establish a quick working relationship.

2016-12-08, 07:21 AM
I think it is appropriate when there is an actual Deus Ex Machina. As in, there is a very powerful being watching the PCs every move and having plans for their future.

Seems like that sort of thing should be part of the main story though...

2016-12-08, 08:50 AM
I very rarely if ever use DEM. Players will catch on quickly and do an eyeroll when the GM saves their bacon.

I used it the other day when one PC was being burnt at the stake and the orher PC's had failed to save her and were on the run. The whole village froze over in an intense winter storm killing almost the whole village. But her father is Kaikias the North western wind

2016-12-11, 08:50 PM
It depends. There are two sets of questions you must ask yourself:

Are the players saved by someone they already met, or at least heard of? Is it convenient but not taking away from the characters? If yes to one, or preferably both, then the DEM is good. If executed well it could be great.

Would the players and plot be harmed by party deaths? Would it be a TPK otherwise? If yes to one or especially both, the DEM is necessary.

2016-12-12, 02:11 AM
DEM's - always tricky. but come in two main situations.

Combat DEM's - save the party during a conflict to avoid TPK's and the like. These are generally BAD DEM's. If you are saving the party from themselves it is a really bad idea. It is usually a better idea to open a path of retreat for the party (which is a DEM of a kind but one that most players mind less). Only time it is even semi-okay is when you as a DM have done-messed-up and need to fix things. I still don't recommend it but it can be used (but will need an OOC explanation)

and Plot DEM's - kick the party forward along the plot. Sometimes a cohort type NPC, a backer, info source etc. These actually depends on the party. Some feel rather lost without having one as backup. I generally only recommend using them if the players are not having fun because they are stuck and the DEM is to try and fix the problem.....and yes there are totally ways of doing this without DEM's - via actual hints and whatever....DEM is the crude tool I don't recommend for this but some groups actually like having it as backup-particularly those which have internal conflict issues.

also building a DEM into a situation can often be a good idea. . . they can be powerful tools to create plot movement. favorite DEM effect to build in is to an "interest" that can act a summoning effect. Break a tree in protected area and you may or may not summon the tree spirit - or activate a type of magical item from a rare source (say ancient civ).....then reveal that "interest" and see if you can hint to the PC's to summon the DEM via it. Yeah it is cheap fix but it keeps the choice in the PC's bailiwick which is key.

2016-12-12, 06:15 AM
I had a DM who used a DeM (Hennet the sorceror, basically lifted out of the PhB, since he was invented on the spot) to give us something to do, when the plot demanded all the players to be there, but someone had called in sick or the like. He usually sent us on some sort of dungeoncrawl that would later be tied into the overall story, but didn't have anything to do with the situation we were in right now. He ended up as one of our favourite charactersand became a regular NPC innstead of a DeM somewhere down the road. As with anything, as long as everyone's having fun, of course DeM's are okay :)

( Edit: the DeM part came in the form that he could lift us out of all situations for sidequesting, even in the middle of sieges)

John Longarrow
2016-12-12, 10:17 AM
Funniest and most "In game" feeling DeM I remember.

Party in mid teens for level. Party getting its behind roasted by big and nasties. Party Cleric calls out to their deity for help.

DM rolls dice behind screen. DM gives surprised comment. DM holds up the game for about 10 minutes while checking rules over.

Party gets ANGELIC HOST arriving based on Cleric's faith.

Talked to DM after the game. He admitted that he put on a show for the "One percent of high level clerics can receive a blessing from their God in an extreme situation" rule. Not sure if it was even a real rule or not, but he did a good job covering for a party giant mistake. What sold it to the players as not being just a DeM to cover a DM screw up was how the DM acted. The "Surprised" at the beginning, then the "Crap, gotta figure out what happens".

Stealth Marmot
2016-12-12, 10:30 AM
Talked to DM after the game. He admitted that he put on a show for the "One percent of high level clerics can receive a blessing from their God in an extreme situation" rule. Not sure if it was even a real rule or not, but he did a good job covering for a party giant mistake. What sold it to the players as not being just a DeM to cover a DM screw up was how the DM acted. The "Surprised" at the beginning, then the "Crap, gotta figure out what happens".

Sounds like the "Divine Intervention" roll we had in the game I played in. It was some 1st edition added rule where the stat "luck" was added where we could roll divine intervention if something really bad, like a character death, was about to happen.

This was later in that campaign, while things started to unravel and we started having crazy death and expectations. I think I've mentioned the story before, but this DM started off good but over the years ended up just plain nuts.

2016-12-13, 10:47 AM
Generally, I think they're best avoided, but they can be acceptable or appropriate in some circumstances. The most egregious abuses involve: overpowered NPCs saving the day, introduction of unestablished and unexpected factors, and breaking of established rules/forcing unused and illogical rules.

A terrible example would be the introduction of an overpowered NPC by teleporting to their exact location to save them, despite them being in a non-teleport zone. That would be the full three strikes.

Good DEMs would mean working within pre-established factors in a logical way, basically the inverse of a bad one. If used really well, they'd barely resemble the definition of a DEM.

2016-12-14, 01:02 PM
Again, if the group is okay with DeMs, then maybe the GM will use them.

But, from a purely creative aspect in the greater window of role-playing games, Dues Ex Machina is a horrible device. It screams "railroad" similar to GM tricks like the Illusion of Choice.

What makes our hobby so interesting is the choices. The best RPG-based video games can't begin to come close to the level of choice available in one session of table-top gaming. IF the GM is creative.

But I see this an alarming amount lately: the player-characters get in a jam staring down a sure TPK and the GM does something to protect the characters. Question: let us say that the party was having grand success against a dragon protecting a huge treasure hoard the party's been searching for. Then, just as the dragon is about to fall, two more dragons appear and attack the party!

My point should be clear: using DeMs to help/protect the party is no different than using DeMs to harm them. Both translate as robbing players of their agency. Player agency manifests in their (1) choice of character (2) the choices that character makes.

People might think, "Well if the party isn't saved, the game ends" or "If the characters don't get a clue to solve the puzzle, the game bottlenecks". Yes, it does but it's not like the players die, right? It's a game. A game that sometime, because of the choices made, things don't have that 'happy ending'.

My thinking is the game isn't about 'winning/beating the bad guy'. If we wanted to do that, writing a book would suffice. I like that we can play games and have endings that are completely unpredictable. To me that's the fun.

Imagine your player-characters are about to embark on an epic campaign, then the GM says,

"Oh yeah, you guys defeat the dragon and its evil Lich master and save the realm."

I would get up and leave because this book has already been written. No need for me to play it out.

But again, if your group thinks this sort of thing is fun, do it.

Stealth Marmot
2016-12-14, 02:02 PM
People might think, "Well if the party isn't saved, the game ends" or "If the characters don't get a clue to solve the puzzle, the game bottlenecks". Yes, it does but it's not like the players die, right?
They don't?

Wow, I have been playing it wrong I tell you. This will make after game cleanup SO much easier.

2016-12-14, 06:54 PM
The Machina can be used to prevent a TPK. I also like to use it when the PCs manage to hold off the BBEG long enough for help to arrive.

2016-12-14, 07:06 PM
Let the dice fall as they may. Let the players live or die by their choices. Games have mechanics for death for a reason.

The only exception I will make is at the start of a campaign. "by some freak coincidence you are all passengers on this same ship, the ship that is carrying the Noble Alazar when he is assassinated". Freak events and contrivances are Ok setting up a campaign.

Stealth Marmot
2016-12-14, 08:23 PM
The only exception I will make is at the start of a campaign. "by some freak coincidence you are all passengers on this same ship, the ship that is carrying the Noble Alazar when he is assassinated". Freak events and contrivances are Ok setting up a campaign.
I use that too.

John Longarrow
2016-12-15, 01:53 AM
Let the dice fall as they may. Let the players live or die by their choices. Games have mechanics for death for a reason.

You run a rough game.... really live up to your handle.

2016-12-15, 05:27 AM
You run a rough game.... really live up to your handle.

It's a high stakes game. Tip: don't drink the punch.

2016-12-15, 08:32 PM
Here's an interesting one, not about combat but about the tone and viability of the game itself.

The game is set in a bounded sandbox, the players accept being one of several adventuring groups in the sandbox. The premise is the characters going around being a heroic group during a build up to a big finale. There is light, off screen, non-adversarial competition with the other adventuring groups and the various heroic deeds done by the PCs will determine which of several big finales they get and which the NPCs get. Within the sandbox there is one "people" kingdom, one "genocidal monsters" kingdom, and assorted hostile wildlands.

The incident is thus: a magistrate/judge in a city is corrupt but politically and legally untouchable. A local military commander is morally offended by this and hires the PCs to kill or drive off the three people supporting the magistrate. Local law enforcement is not involved in, or informed of, any of the above.

The PCs get two of their targets but end up fighting the local police, seriously injuring several of them. The military commander sends a warning to the PCs to avoid harming anyone but the criminals. The PCs wipe out the last criminal and then publicly talk about killing the magistrate and her entire family. The police arrive.

Problem: if there is a fight then at least 8 to 10 constables will be killed. The PCs will probably continue on and slaughter a family. Logically at that point they will become outlaws with bounties on them. The police, military, and other adventuring groups will hunt the PCs and attack without restraint, even the criminal underworld will be trying to kill them. The PCs will become completely cut off from civilization and markets, becoming nothing more than high powered bandits. The game will effectively end, and it will end on a bad note.

Should the DM intervene using the military commander and overwhelming force to stop the bloodbath and keep the game going?

John Longarrow
2016-12-15, 08:39 PM
If the military commander gets involved it will be by rolling in with troops and taking the PC "Into custody". Military commander makes up legit sounding charges. Military commander then has them tried for "Crimes" and sentenced to accept a geas (or similar spell) to do something important.

That's about as realistic as the DM can get without it looking like a hand wave. PCs WERE talking in public about killing off a major figure. Players should realize that's a really big mistake. If the players want to fight it out then they get to play a group that's on the run and being high powered bandits.

Just saying "OK, nothing happens" is fairly unrealistic.