You've probably already figured out that I took a break from blogging last week because of the holidays. I was tempted to use the same excuse this week, but decided to start the new year off on the right foot and finally get around to the Cinemechanix posts I hinted at a few months ago before I decided to write a bad fantasy novel and a (I hope) good book about being a GM (which should be on sale when I write next week's blog; I'll let you know where to buy it then).
As I mentioned in the first post about Cinemechanix, the new system grew out of ideas for a 3rd edition of QAGS. After running the game for over a decade, I'd noticed a few problems. Most of them aren't a big deal if all the players are on the same page (they rarely come up when I'm playing a game with the Hex crew, for example), but they get annoying if the GM and players have interpreted the rules differently or have different expectations. There are also some that rely on applying "fixes" that most regular QAGS GMs (or at least most of the ones I've played with) apply (sometimes without even realizing it) but that aren't in the book. Since the whole reason for doing a new edition of the game was to fix the problems, I started by making a list of what the problems were. I'm going to revisit that list this week to show you the starting point. In future posts, I'll talk about how trying to fixing those problems morphed the system into something that wasn't really QAGS anymore.
The Stats Are All Independent
A lot of the problems with QAGS from a game standpoint is that (with the exception of Skills) the different Words don't "stack" with one another since you're always rolling against one specific Word. If you're rolling your "Soldier" Job to punch somebody, that's the only Word that matters for that particular roll. A 90-pound weakling with a Body of 8 punches just was well as a tank with a Body of 16. This isn't very "realistic" and no doubt drives min-maxers crazy, but that doesn't really bother me, but it does lead to weird things like the wonky Second Chance Rolls rule and having to roll Weakness before you make the roll for the thing you're trying to do. Another problem is that it makes character design extremely dependent on how your GM runs the game because of the next problem.
Which Stat To Use Relies Heavily On GM Judgement
Since you're always rolling against a single stat, the stats that the GM tends to tell you to roll against plays a huge roll in determining how often your character succeeds. While there are guidelines in the rules about when to use Gimmick or Job and when to fall back on Body, Brain, or Nerve, which Word gets used often depends on how broadly or narrowly the GM interprets Jobs and Gimmicks. If the GM interprets Jobs and Gimmicks broadly, you're going to use them for nearly every roll and your Body, Brain, and Nerve don't really matter. If he interprets them narrowly, your Body, Brain and Nerve are going to be far more important than Job and Gimmick Numbers. If you put your best Numbers in Body, Brain, and Nerve and the GM asks for Job rolls for almost everything, your character is going to fail more often (and vice versa).
It's Hard To Differentiate Characters in "Team" Settings
Since characters usually just have one Job, Skills and Gimmicks are the only way to differentiate characters in games where everyone has the same basic Job (like "Spy" or "Monster Hunter"). Different writers have found different ways of getting around this problem, but none of them is completely satisfactory. We want to keep characters simple, but the "one of each Word" set-up can be limiting. This can also be a problem if you want a character with one aspect of Body, Brain, or Nerve that's better or worse than the basic Number would indicate (like if you want a character who's really strong but clumsy) since you have to waste your Gimmick or Weakness on the outlier trait.
Success Degree is Very Random
QAGS was initially designed for pick-up games, so the decision to roll a single d20 was in part so you only needed one die to play. Because of math things involving bell curves and stuff that I can barely grasp if someone explains it to me using small words and lots of pictures, rolling a single dice means that your number only affects your chance of success, not how well you do. A character with a Number of 14 is twice as likely to succeed as a character with a Number of 7 (70% chance vs. 35% chance), and can succeed with a higher roll, but he's just as likely to roll a 1 as a 14 (or a 20, for that matter). If you were rolling, for example, 3d6, not only would the character with a 14 succeed a lot more often than the guy with a 7 (73%-ish to about 16%, based on ballpark math from a random bell curve chart I googled), the result is generally going to be higher (somewhere around 65% of rolls are going be be between 8 and 14, with 25% or rolls being a 10 or 11). Basically, the random roll of the die has a lot more to do with success than your character's stats, so you get a lot more situations where the Heavyweight Champ gets knocked out by the random nerd. Again the lack of "realism" here doesn't really bother me, but it can lead to situations that don't make a lot of sense in terms of story.
Even the addition of Skills in Second Edition doesn't really improve things, since they add to the target number rather than the Success Degree (though I've noticed that a lot of people misread that and add Skill Bonuses to the roll instead, which brings us to the next problem).
Nobody Understands How The Rolls Work
In QAGS, you want to roll under your target number, but you want a high roll. This confuses a lot of people, in part because in the most well-known "roll-under" mechanic (at least when QAGS was released), 2nd Edition D&D Non-weapon Proficiencies, a lower roll is better. So a lot of people assume they want to roll low. To help combat this misconception, we came up with the "Price is Right" explanation: You want to get as close to your roll without going over. This helps (though I still meet new players who think they're supposed to roll low), but creates a new problem of people thinking that the difference between the target number is important and always telling the GM "I got 14 out of 15" or something. Getting across that the number you're rolling against only determines whether you succeed or fail, not how well you do (that's all based on the roll, regardless of target number) is tricky.
The "One Roll For Attack and Defense" Idea Sounds Good, But...
The idea of doing one roll for combat and the winner causing damage was meant to reduce the number of rolls you have to make in combat and thereby make combat faster. The fact that we immediately had to write exception rules for ranged combat and combat with multiple opponents should have been a sign that it doesn't quite work outside of a duel type situation where characters only have one person to attack. Most GMs I've played with use the more standard "everybody gets one attack" set-up ("you attack the monster, then the monster attacks you" (two rolls) rather than "you and the monster attack each other"(one roll)) anyway, so fixing this one is just a matter of making the rules fit how people actually play.
Combat Is Really Fucking Deadly
Since damage is based on the difference between attack and defense rolls and a failed defense counts as a zero, an attack from a completely average person without a weapon can cause 11 points of damage if the defense roll fails. Since an average person in QAGS has 11 Health Points and they don't normally increase, this means most characters can be killed with a single lucky hit. We knew this when we designed the system, but the assumption was that Yum Yums would fix it. If you want your game to be gritty with lots of death, be stingy with the Yum Yums. If you don't want characters to die very often, give out plenty of YYs for them to use to reduce damage. If GMs get this and give out Yum Yums and players remember to use them (and since the alternative is character death, why wouldn't you?), this works, but since most QAGS games aren't of the "life is cheap" variety, it wouldn't hurt to make the default combat rules less deadly and explain the role of Yum Yums better.
The Experience System. It's just...
I'm not sure if QAGS First Edition even had an experience system, but if it did it was an afterthought. By the time we wrote Second Edition, we'd realized that most gamers really want some kind of reward system, so we added one. Since I'd just come off a campaign where character advancement was basically a matter of asking the GM "hey, shouldn't my character be better at basket weaving now, since he's been weaving all those baskets?" I tried to build a system where the stat increases were tied to things happening in the story. Unfortunately, it's tricky to combine the two and even harder to explain it, so the experience system is so wonky as hell.
As I said in my first article about Cinemechanix a few months ago, all of these problems disappear or become relatively minor if your play style matches the play style that QAGS was written for. While the GM and player advice in QAGS encourages that play style, the style and the rules aren't as integrated as they really need to be. The plan with the 3rd Edition that became Cinemechanix was to make the style and the rules fit together more smoothly and explain things more clearly. I'll get into how I tried to do that next week.
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Since people seemed to like last week’s blog about writing adventures for publication (and since I’m still trying to figure out the best way to approach the more in-depth discussion of Cinemechanix), I’m going to follow up with a blog about actually submitting the game. I haven’t actually done very much submitting (nearly everything I write is self-published or written for a specific project that someone I know is publishing), but I have been on the receiving end of a lot of submissions. Therefore, this post won’t be so much “ways to make a game company notice your submission” as “ways to avoid getting your submission dismissed immediately.”
Don’t Send Unsolicited Manuscripts
There may be a few companies who accept complete manuscripts from any random person on the internet, but most just want a proposal at first. In fact, most submission guidelines specifically state that unsolicited manuscripts will not be read. The main reason is to protect the company from charges of IP theft. I know that you think your game is a beautiful snowflake, but all snowflakes look pretty much alike unless you look at them really closely. If we’re working on a game about Ninja Space Sharks, we don’t want to see your complete manuscript about Ninja Space Sharks because if we do you’re going to see any similarity between the two as evidence that we stole your idea. If we only saw a 400-word proposal and responded with “sorry, but we’re already working on a game about Ninja Space Sharks,” you’re more likely to realize that most of the similarities between our finished product and your rough draft exist because there are just certain things that you’ve got to have in a game about Ninja Space Sharks.
Don’t Send Form Letters
In my experience most form letters are from people who are looking for freelance work rather than from people with a game they want to publish (here at One Hex Tower, a surprisingly high percentage seem to be from South American artists), but we’ve gotten a couple of “I’ve got a game I’d like to publish” emails that were obviously form letters. Hex doesn’t usually hire freelance writers, so “I’m looking for writing work” form letters go into File 13 (we respond with our own form letter and keep the information around in case we ever get desperate, but the folder they’re in rarely gets opened). For artists, Leighton keeps a short list of people who we’d like to work with if a project comes along that fits their style. Artists who send form letters rarely (actually “never” might be more accurate) end up on that list; they go into File 13, too. The handful of game submission form letters we’ve gotten have also gone to File 13, but usually more because we weren’t interested in the ideas (see next section) than because they were form letters. Other companies who use more work for hire are probably less annoyed by form letters than we are, but including a few sentences that make it clear that you know who the letter is going to and have some idea what kinds of games they produce will probably give you a better chance of standing out from all the form letters.
Read The Submission Guidelines
Most companies that accept submissions have a set of submission guidelines on their web site, and you should read them before you send anything. In addition to telling you what the company wants from you, they can often save you time by telling you what the company doesn’t want. For example, the Hex Writers’ Guidelines (which are on the same menu as the link to the contact form most freelancers use, but still obviously don't get read by most people who contact us) clearly say that we’re not looking for new game systems or traditional fantasy games. If you submit a proposal related to either of those without preceding it with “I know you aren’t looking for new game systems or traditional fantasy, but,” we’re going to stop reading as soon as we hit the part that makes it clear you haven’t read the guidelines. If you can’t be bothered to read the submission guidelines, it’s a warning sign that you might be difficult to work with. Either you’re lazy, you can’t follow simple instructions, or you’re arrogant enough to think the rules don’t apply to you because your idea is so brilliant (statistically speaking, it’s not).
Even if your revolutionary encumbrance system is so great that any company would be foolish not to publish it, ignoring the guidelines can keep it from ever being seen. If your submission includes everything the company asks for in its guidelines, whoever receives it can put it directly into the workflow for new submissions. If it’s missing something (or in some cases, if it includes stuff the company doesn’t need or want), you create more work for the person who receives the submission. Every new step they have to take to move your submission along is a new chance for them to decide it’s not worth the hassle.
Your submission letter doesn’t necessarily need to be formal and follow the format for a business letter that you learned in English class, but an email that says “doodz, gotta kickass idea 4 a game about ninnnja space sharks what u pay me 4 it” isn’t going to cut it. A half-assed proposal is a warning sign that the work will be equally half-assed, and there’s a limit to the amount of editing and revision a company can justify putting into a game to make it publishable no matter how great the premise. Don’t give the publisher reason to believe your submission isn’t going to be worth the effort.
Also, since most freelancers don’t work at the company offices, the bulk of the revision, editing, and other work required to get the book ready is going to happen through email (or some other form of written communication). Don’t give a company reason to think they’re going to need a decoder ring to decipher every email you send. Think of your submission letter as a job interview and try to look smarter and more competent than you actually are.
Expect To Make Revisions
I know you think that everything you type is pure brilliance, but you need to understand that if your submission gets accepted, there’s still a lot of work left to do. Some of it’s just basic copy editing, but usually you’re going to have to make some changes to your manuscript. Keep in mind that the company has (probably) published more games than you have, so most revision requests exist for some reason beyond just making your life miserable. You don’t necessarily have to accept every suggestion your editor makes without question, but you should choose your battles. If you don’t understand why your editor is asking you to do something, ask them. If you think a suggestion makes the game worse, explain how. If you fight the editor over every single change (especially relatively meaningless ones), your first project with the company will probably be your last, and even that first one might get cancelled if you’re a gigantic pain in the ass to work with.
Finally, never try to create a game that can be described as “like D&D, but better.” It won’t be to the people who play D&D, and those of us who don’t play D&D don’t give a shit. If you've got a game about Ninja Space Sharks, though, the Hex Writers' Guidelines are right here.
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Over the years, Hex has published somewhere in the vicinity of fifty game books, and I’ve been involved in the editing process of most of them at some stage. As a result, I’ve noticed that there are certain mistakes that show up over and over again, especially from first-time writers. Some of these problems are general ones that are covered in most writing classes: passive voice, dangling modifiers, first drafts submitted with the belief that they’ll be taken seriously, that sort of thing. Others, especially when it comes to RPG adventures, are specific to the format and form.
Recently, I’ve been reading up on common mistakes that fiction writers make (so I can make sure my bad fantasy novel has them all). This research has led me to a realization that many of the mistakes I see in first drafts of RPG adventures might happen because writers are trying to follow the rules of good fiction writing. The problem, of course, is that RPG adventures aren’t fiction. When you write an adventure for a role-playing game, you’re not telling a story; you’re writing an instruction manual for someone else to use to tell a story. Realizing this from the start will save you a lot of revision later. Below are three rules to keep in mind when you’re writing an adventure.
Understand the Audience
“Know your audience” is a pretty common writing tip, but it’s especially important here because an RPG adventure has two tiers of audience: the GM and the players. A lot of people write adventures for the players. Since most people write their first adventures to run for their own gaming group, this is completely understandable. In a published adventure, however, the players aren’t the primary audience. The story (the game the GM runs based on your adventure) needs to appeal to the players, but the audience for the text of the adventure (the thing you’re actually writing) is the Game Master. You’re not writing the novelization of the movie, you’re writing the shooting script.
The most common audience-related mistake by far in adventure writing is withholding information. If someone is writing a murder mystery adventure (for example), they’ll try to keep the murderer’s identity a secret until the part of the adventure where the PCs are supposed to solve the case. Basically, they’re trying to structure things so the GM experiences the revelation at the same point in the story as the audience should experience it. The problem is that the GM isn’t the audience (of the story), she’s the director. She needs to know all the secrets from the moment they become relevant so she can understand the structure and flow of the adventure and present it properly to her players. For most adventures, this means telling the GM exactly who the antagonist is, what they’re trying to do, and (in at least general terms) how they’re doing it right from the start.
Tell, Don’t Show
The first rule of fiction writing is “Show, Don’t Tell,” but you’re not writing fiction. An RPG adventure is essentially technical writing. The story that the GM uses the adventure to tell may be great fiction, but the adventure itself is not. When you show, you’re dictating a specific action, usually in detail and often from a specific character’s point of view, which isn’t appropriate for an RPG adventure. This doesn’t mean you can’t be descriptive--good character and setting descriptions can be useful--it just means you should keep your description factual and limited to the static elements of the story. Describing the action is the GM’s job.
For example, If you say, “When the PCs enter the room, the minotaur swings his axe in a mighty arc and separates Skippy the NPC’s head from his body, showering the PCs with blood,” you’re making a lot of assumptions about what’s going on and robbing the players of some of their agency. Saying “When the PCs enter the room, the minotaur will attack Skippy the NPC if he’s with them” doesn’t sound like a huge change, but it allows a much wider range of possibilities. Most importantly, it frames the scene as combat rather than something that happens independent of the PCs, which gives the players the illusion that they at least have a chance of saving Skippy (even if he’s getting decapitated no matter how the dice fall). It also implies an “otherwise” that the adventure writer needs to include if the players enter the room unaccompanied by Skippy. Finally, it keeps the encounter description general enough that the GM isn’t required to do any “re-writing” if the thief snuck in and stole the minotaur’s axe earlier or the PCs gave Skippy a Ring of Protection from Decapitation or whatever.
Sure, any decent GM should be able to adapt to changes as minor as the ones in my limited example, but when you add it to a dozen other instances of showing rather than telling, you end up with a railroad track, not an adventure. Showing is the GM’s job. Your job is to tell him what he needs to (try to) show.
The “Tell, Don’t Show” rule is especially important when it comes to dialog. I prefer to avoid NPC dialog altogether. In addition to the usual problems that come with including boxed text that the GM reads to the players, writing NPC dialog creates unnecessary work for the GM. To keep the character from seeming inconsistent, he has to make sure the NPC sounds the same (uses similar speech patterns, style, and vocabulary) during other scenes as he does during the scene with written dialog. If you must include dialog, restrict it to monologs. Including dialog for a conversation either puts words in the PCs’ mouths (if the conversation is between an NPC and PCs) or excludes them from participating altogether (if the conversation is between NPCs). In either case, you’re basically forcing them to watch a cut scene, which is even more frustrating in tabletop games where they’re completely unnecessary than in video games where they can’t be avoided.
Keep It Simple
I think that every program that could possibly be used by a writer should come with a copy of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” that the user has to read and take a short quiz about in order to unlock the software, so I’ll admit that there’s some personal bias here. Still, even I acknowledge that challenging text can make good fiction even better in a lot of cases. But, once again, an RPG adventure isn’t fiction.
You might notice that the instruction manual for your phone doesn’t include any subtext or clever wordplay or five-dollar words. That’s because the manual for your phone has one job: to teach you how to use your phone. Likewise, your adventure has one job: to give a GM the information she needs to run the adventure. Keep the text simple and stick to standard vocabulary wherever possible. Occasionally, the setting or atmosphere may require you to use uncommon words or refer to people, places, things, or concepts that most people have never heard of. When this happens, make sure to define or explain the word or idea somewhere in the text, preferably where it’s first introduced. If you only know something because of the research you did for the adventure or an upper-level course you took in college, it’s a safe bet you need to explain it to the reader. Also remember that the average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level. If the reader constantly has to stop reading to Google things because you graduated for the Gary Gygax School For Thesaurus Abuse, they might just give up. Even if they suffer through to the end because you’ve already got their money, they’re probably not going to give you more money in the future.
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It's a holiday weekend and I've still got 7000 or so words to write by Monday, so here's a dumb table for your super-hero game.
- The characters are forced to attend an awkward holiday gathering with a PC's family.
- The PCs have to plan the super-hero team's annual Christmas party (knowing that it will be attacked by super villains).
- Someone hijacked the shipment of toy and coat donations on its way to the orphanage. Can the PC's save Christmas?
- A super-villain uses subliminal mind-control technology to turn Black Friday shoppers into mindless zombies. Will the heroes even notice?
- Santa comes down with a bad case of the flu and recruits the heroes to deliver toys to all the children in the world.
- Super-villain of the week: Krampus.
- A cosmic being shows a super-hero who is thinking about retiring what life would be like without him or her.
- A winter-themed villain attacks the city.
- The heroes have to go undercover as mall Santas to bust up a crime ring.
- A snowman comes to life and goes on a crime spree.
- A snowman comes to life and becomes a super-hero. Can the PCs find a way for him to survive when winter ends?
- A Riddler type super-villain has left poisoned milk and cookies for Santa at a house somewhere in the world. The PCs have to solve his puzzle and save St. Nick.
- Someone claiming to Santa Claus arrives in the city and embarks on a super-hero career. Is he legit?
- Someone claiming to be Jesus arrives in the city and embarks on a super-hero career. Is he legit?
- A hero thought long-dead shows up with a dire warning. Shortly thereafter, the PCs are visited by three otherworldly beings who guide the heroes as they fight the same villain in the past, present, and future.
- Santa goes missing just a few days before Christmas, and it looks like he may have been kidnapped by a super-villain. Can the PCs save him?
- A group of super-villains take hostages in a high-rise during a company Christmas party. They act like terrorist and make a lot of demands, but they're really trying to steal something from the vault.
- There's a hot new toy this Christmas in so much demand that people are resorting to violence and murder to get one for their kids. Is something sinister going on, or are people just awful?
- A prominent super-hero couple has their first child, causing a sudden outbreak of cult activity, religious tension, and predictable Jesus imagery.
- When a friend of the team who owns a store suddenly loses most of his employees, the heroes agree to help out and are forced to face their most daunting enemy yet: Black Friday shoppers.
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Last week I posted a map and some basic information about the setting for the terrible fantasy novel I'm writing for National Novel Writing Month, The Quest For the Lord of the Dragonsword Throne. Since one of the characters is a wizardess, I've had to come up with some basic information about how magic works in the world. Most of the information so far has been from the perspective of an Omarian wizard, so some of what we know may be based as much on cultural norms as on the universal laws of magic in the world. I also haven't established how closely other places follow the Omarian standard, though there is at least a suggestion that the Seven Kingdoms view magic similarly, and the Callipygians (barbarians) probably engage in more primitive rituals since they're "suspicious of civilized magic, with its relative lack of violence and spectacle and body fluids compared to what passed for sorcery among the savages."
Wizardry in Omaria is controlled by the Wizards' Guild ("witch" is a derogatory term applied to non-guild wizards). Magic is known as the "The Black Arts" and spells are divided into four spheres, each associated with a color. Red magic is the magic of the body and covers things like strength spells and battle magic (though not healing). Blue magic is the magic of the soul and includes things like emotional manipulation and mind control. Gold magic is the magic of the intellect and is used for spells that improve perception and understanding--divination spells, spells to read languages or see things that are hidden, that kind of thing. Green magic is the magic of nature and covers druid-type stuff from controlling the weather to making crops grow better. Wizards who specialize in a particular color of magic may be invited to join one of the four Orders, which are sub-groups of the guild, kind of like Hogwart's houses for grown-ups (though wizards join (or choose not to join) the Orders voluntarily--there's no Sorting Hat or anything).
A fifth type of magic, white magic, is the magic that is channeled by servants of the gods. It's not considered true magic by the wizards and at one point Cassie says that most people who claim to be white magicians are really just charlatans who rely on suggestion and parlor tricks.
In QAGS terms, "Wizard" is the Job and the different colors of magic are Skills. Wizards can cast magic from any of the four colors and can take Skills for more than one color if they want. Wizards have spell points equal to their Wizard Job Number plus the number of Skill Bonuses they have in magic-related skills. Wizards with Brain and/or Nerve Numbers over 13 get an additional spell point for a 14, 2 points for 15, and 3 for 16. So a Wizard with a Job Number of 12, Brain 14, and Nerve 15 and a "Blue Magic" Skill at +2 would have 17 spell points.
Wizards can cast rituals, make potions, enchant items, and do all the usual stuff, and these use the Magic Rules! system with a spell point cost equal to the DN of the ritual. The only things that work differently are Hexes, which are the kind of spells we've seen Cassie using so far. A Hex is basically a quick, temporary magical effect. It might help to think of it like an interrupt or instant card in Magic: The Gathering (if I'm remembering the terminology right--I haven't played in years). They look a lot like a spell in Harry Potter--the wizard points his staff, says something in a weird language (the magic words for the spells in the novel are their own dumb joke, but I'll let you work that out for yourself if you're so inclined), and something happens. When a wizard casts a Hex, the Success Degree determines the maximum effect a spell can have, but the wizard has to spend a spell point for each point of actual effect. For example, a wizard who gets a Success Degree of 10 on an attack spell but only spends 5 spell points causes 5 points of damage. What a point's worth of spell effect means depends on the context. If the wizard is trying to do something like open a lock with magic, he'd need an effect greater than the DN a thief would need to pick the lock without magic. For spells that cause or reduce damage from a single attack, effect points translate directly to HP. If the caster wants to give someone a bonus for multiple rounds, each point is a +1 bonus for 1 round, so if you want to give someone +2 for the next 5 rounds, you need to spend 10 spell points. When there's no existing game number to translate the effect to, the GM can always just treat every three points of spell effect as a Yum Yum when deciding how well a hex works.
White magic (which we haven't seen in action yet in the novel) is a whole other ballgame. To use white magic, a character needs an appropriate Gimmick along the lines of "Servant of [God's Name Here]." They don't have spell points and basically cast spells by asking whichever god they follow to help them out. Since the gods are fickle bastards, it's basically a crap shoot. The servant rolls Gimmick and the GM rolls d20. If the GM rolls higher (the god can't fail his roll, so even 20s are considered a success), the god isn't listening and nothing happens. If the player wins the roll, the magic happens with an effect equal to the difference. The GM can give bonuses or even allow an automatic success (player still rolls, but the god voluntarily rolls a zero, which they can do despite there being no zero on a d20 because they're gods) if she thinks the god actually cares about whatever the player is trying to do (usually because it's something the god needs the player to do).
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