Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Associating Invisibility

Susan Richards goes
unnoticed while on the
So there's been a lot of discussion of dissociative rules and all that Crap lately, which reminded me of one of my least favorite dissociated rules of D&D that I'm aware of.  I'm talking of course about invisibility.

More specifically, the rule that says that an invisible character immediately becomes visible upon initiating violence.

Why on earth would the forces of magic all of a sudden sprout a big hippie beard, fire up the patchouli-scented incense, and do their best yogi-pose as soon as an invisible character decides to garrote someone?  There's no similar rule for polymorphed beings entering combat, nor for the charmed, strengthed, featherfallen, etc.  Why the inconsistency?

Famous invisible people
of literature.
My assumption has always been that it's because our Founding Fathers considered remaining invisible during combat to be too much of an advantage, so they bolted on an external (dissociated) mechanism for leveling the playing field.  But it's a sucky one, especially when one considers the options available in literature, most famously in the writings of H.G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Please read on:

If you really want to associate the effects of invisibility, our man H.G. is the way to go; only your body is invisible, anything which is not attached directly to your epidermis is going to be seen.  Which is why the invisible man walks around dressed like a mummy all the time.  That means that if your party wants to turn inviz to sneak past the guards, they gotta strip down to their goods, which might lead to this type of scenario:

Player:    I strip down and turn invisible to sneak past the guards to the Baron's bedroom. 
DM:       Once inside the chamber, you see a large, luxurious bed which is occupied by the baron and his wife who are sleeping soundly under a thick, cozy feather bed.  There is a fireplace, but the fire in the hearth has gone out and the wooden shudders on the windows do little to prevent the wintry drafts from chilling the room to near freezing temperatures. Your feet are icy from walking on the bare stone floors of the castle and though you are invisible, you don't need to see your naked flesh to tell that it is covered in goosebumps; you are beginning to shiver uncontrollably.   Did I mention that there is plenty of room in the bed for a third? What do you do next?
...which might lead to far different results than intended.

In addition, how far do you go with the associating?  Would an invizible Mr. Huge Ruined Pile look like a mobile, man-shaped mural?

In The Hobbit, Tolkien's take on invisibility is a bit more user-friendly.  Bilbo, thankfully, did not need to strip to his hobbit-sized giblets to take advantage of the invisibility conferred by the one-ring-to-rule-them-all, but when he whipped out Sting to slash the spider webs, the sword was fully visible.  And, as I recall, ring-wearing Bagginses were also said to cast a faint shadow, though I can't be bothered to look for the reference at the moment.

I think right here you have the beginnings of an effective leveling mechanism:
  • the presence of an invisible being is marked by a slight visual anomaly, and 
  • anything held in the hand is going to be visible.  

I think I'd take it a bit further and say that anything that extends beyond, say, 3 inches from the person's body, would become wholly visible i.e., that whole sword is visible including the hilt, not just the part that extends beyond ~3" from your hand.  Sure, this is a dissociation of sorts, but it's one that I can live with cuz it makes for a cooler image.

By this rule, any handheld item larger than a mid-sized link of sausage would become visible including swords, shields, staffs, but also non-handheld items like great helms, loaded backpacks, cloaks, wizard hats, pointy elf shoes, etc.    

So you're fighting in combat, everyone can see your weapon and the aforementioned visual anomaly--which, in my mind, is somewhat akin to the shimmery distortion that was apparent when The Predator was hassling Conan back in '87.*  That makes invizzos a lot easier to nail down in combat; let's say attackers are -4 to hit, even less if invizzo-dude is fighting 2-handed, using a shield, or is fool enough to be wearing a cloak or a backpack.  If he's doing all three, then he's pretty much given it all away; give 'em a -1 to hit  and that's it.

*And, of course, invisibility would also be useless against infravision--unless you cover yourself in mud. 

But what about invisible MUs blasting off spells from the 2nd row?  What's to make them less "unfair"?  Well, beside the aforementioned wizard hat ruling, what about this: when casting spells, the interaction of the aura of invisibility with the incoming magic of the new spell combine to create a magical reaction which causes invisible spellcasters to glow for the duration of the casting time of any spell and leaves a faint after glow for the remainder of the round; any attacks made against them are at +2.

That's an invisibility rule I could live with.  You have to treat invisibility a lot differently; no more hiding an entire party in a bag of holding which the invisibled thief then picks up and sneaks out the dungeon with.  In order to remain invisible, a character is going to have to ditch a lot of gear, making it useful only in certain situations.


  1. That's a great example of one of those "Huh?" rules from the old games.

    Your solution works, but makes invisibility of very limited usefulness. How about something in between: If you're invisible and you touch someone (including whacking them with pointy things) you are no longer invisible to that person. [the aura harmonics of the both of you have synchronized, or whatever.]

    Basically you'd get a safe way to move around and one free hit on anybody. Plus the drama of the guy you hit yelling to everyone else "He's over there!"

  2. Please watch the movie "Eric the Viking." Stat.

    It's got a new wrinkle on invisibility for you.

    And Word Verification: "Nexpoo 3" Are they making subtle commentary on the upcoming edition of D&D there in computer land?

  3. Yeah, invisibility was always a disconnect. IMC, strictly speaking, invisibility means visual only. There are different versions of the spell to cover sound, smell, and heat signature (all with different to-hit mods). In all cases, you can do whatever you want without spoiling the spell.

    Also, you said sausage. Hehe.

  4. I'll throw myself on the (strangely visible) sword. anything held in the hand is going to be visible. is just another disassociated mechanic. It isn't any different from the similarly arbitrary "invisibility fails you if you intend to do physical harm" mechanic.

    I mean, does invisibility fail if you try to slip poison into a flagon? If you swing your battleaxe viciously, but at a practice dummy?

    If you start to write a letter of which the contents you intend the condemnation of someone to prosecution and execution?

    Anything you say about invisibility that doesn't derive from the physics of a fictitious universe (themselves disassociated) is going to be accused of disassociation.

    Can't we just say that rules that make for a fair, fun game are good rules?

    I mean for me you got it right with your joke line: Why on earth would the forces of magic all of a sudden sprout a big hippie beard, fire up the patchouli-scented incense, and do their best yogi-pose as soon as an invisible character decides to garrote someone?

    Why indeed.

    Isn't the fundamentally supernatural order of D&D's fundamentally supernatural universe a fundamental bitch.

    Shut up, Mr. Burton! You were not brought upon this world to "get it"!....There are many mysteries, many unanswerable questions, even in a life as short as yours.

  5. @Telemonster: I think I have defanged invisibility too much. Your suggestion definitely has some appeal to it.

    @Lord G: Eric the Viking, adding it to my list.Thanks.

    @Erin: I'm glad someone around here appreciates a good sausage reference.

    I'll throw myself on the (strangely visible) sword. anything held in the hand is going to be visible. is just another disassociated mechanic.

    Agreed, I stated as much in my post. But what would actually be dissociated about this rule is not that the thing in your hand is visible while the rest of you is not, but that everything on your person that is not actually a part of you is not also visible.

    But one must draw a Line of Dissociation somewhere or else we'd have the opposite of Telecanter's suggestion: anything that an invisible person touches also becomes invisible--including the ground s/he walks on!? You'd have an invisibility contagion!

    Anyway, in the case of invisibility, a dissociation of physical proximity is far more palatable to me than one of personal intent. If such differences are invisible to you then mazel tov!

  6. Ooh, invisibility contagion, now that's a cool idea; kill the dreaded invisiblin before everything in the world disappears!

  7. Wait, what?

    I always thought the "invisibility ends when you attack" rule as being the result of trying to think about invisibility as if it were a realistic effect. When you attack, you make your presence and location known.

    I'd maybe make this more obvious: to remain invisible, you have to at least try to not attract attention to your location. Talking, falling down in a noisy manner, attempting to lift an object all cause the effect to fade.

  8. I think Talysman has it. In Chainmail, pixies and fairies are invisible and it just gives them an advantage in the first round of combat, because after that their foes kind of know where they are. Loosely (and lossly) translated into D&D a couple years later, and you just have: the spell's effect ends once you attack, wait, let's keep it simple and say the spell ends.

    So there is a rational origin that gets lost in revision and ends up wacky.

  9. Talysman, Talysman, Talysman, always with the sound, rational thinking. That's going to get you into trouble some day. I actually do like the principal quite a bit. However...

    That notion might have worked well for the wargaming roots of D&D where it was pretty much assumed that the entire affair was one constant combat; once the invizzo pixies attacked, everyone could lock them in for the duration of the battle. --Thanks to mikemonaco for providing the research here.

    But in D&D, combats are quite often isolated events happening behind closed doors. There's no reason that an invisible dude couldn't attack someone in one room, thus revealing his location to his opponent, and then resume his invisibility once he left the room.

    Rings, cloaks, and sprites can, I think, work like this in D&D. But that's not the case with the 2nd level MU spell. The spell is actually permanent until it is dispelled, cancelled, or you attack someone, at which point it is terminated. That suggests that the action of entering combat actually cancels the magic, not merely making your presence apparent to co-belligerents for the time being.

    Th invisibility rule may have grown out of a reasonable assumption, but once that vocabulary got thrown into the works, it lost its grip.

  10. Another thought. In Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon (and mentioned in a few other books, like the Dark Tower series), Flagg can go "Dim" which means he is not warping light around him to appear invisible, but he is sending out a psychic vibe that makes everyone actively NOT NOTICE him.

    In that instance, attacking or making some other aggressive move would force people to start noticing you again, ending the effect.

    Now, this could be King (who did play D&D when he was young) trying to associate the dissociated mechanic of D&D in his fiction. Or maybe it's me just trying to associate it now. Anyway, more food for thought at least.

  11. How about adding a duration to the spell, and ruling that when you attack people can generally discern where you are during that round, without the invisibility necessarily dropping? Stuff like this is the reason we never played spellcasters when I was younger! What a bunch of nonsense. :)

  12. "wizard's hat" - My ruling from now on is that Invisibility works on everything except headgear, because the idea of a Invis. 10' Radius resulting in a series of floating helms and hats/hoods is just too damn amusing.

  13. Dennis Laffey's example of the "dim" ability where you send out a psychic wave that makes people not notice you reminds me very much of the SEP field from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. They discovered that true invisibility was impossible, but someone invented the SEP field, explained by Ford Prefect:

    "An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot."

    I always likened it to when the dog poops on the floor and every kid in the house walks right by it and when you ask, no one every saw it. Somebody Else's Problem.