RPG NERD GLOSSARY: SHARK REPELLENT
I keep using this phrase as if everyone knows what I mean. Let me unpack it.
Consider a buyable power in some kind of fantasy campaign. SHARK REPELLENT, it is called. What does it say on the tin that shark repellent does? It repels sharks, that’s what it does. Guaranteed. You have to spend meaningful resources buying it, resources you could have spent on the standard PC skill THRILLING HEROICS. But just you wait! When a shark comes along, it’s in trouble!
It is in trouble, right?
From the GM side of the screen, shark repellent is frankly a poisonous trap, and here is how.
Non shark encounter: Character A engages in thrilling heroics. Character B does not.
Shark encounter: Character B uses SHARK REPELLENT. Encounter goes away!
… But you didn’t actually control whether Character B had shark repellent. Maybe they didn’t take that class. Maybe they sidestepped that power. Maybe they will not be at the session. Maybe they will have a brain fart and not use it. Now do you balance sharks for the presence of shark repellent or not?
Let’s say you don’t. Let’s say that once per fiveish sessions, there’s a shark encounter. Maybe sometimes there’s a shark dungeon. Character B shines! Character A is sidelined! That’s OK, you all think, they get to have fun the rest of the time. But does Character B actually shine? They do their thing. They make up for being 90% strength 90% of the time with being 190% strength 10% of the time. But is this actually fun? It’s pretty much an I-Win button – have you seen the anime One Punch Man? I-Win buttons suck. This is the experience of a pre-Tasha’s 5e D&D ranger in a wilderness they’re expert in. This is one potential experience of a fifth level 5e D&D cleric versus diseases and curses.
OK, so you balance sharks for the presence of shark repellent. Now if character B is not present, the party must run from the sharks. If character B is present, the sharks are repelled and a balanced encounter proceeds. This is called the Rogue’s Dilemma – replace sharks with locks and traps – or the Decker’s Dilemma – replace sharks with computers. Whole screeds have been written about the Rogue’s Dilemma and I don’t propose to go into them, but suffice to say that design moved away from this direction for a reason.
Assume you’ve done one of the above… but now you want to challenge the players. Maybe you’re not thinking, maybe you didn’t think hard enough, maybe you just had a brain fart. The following train of thought is incredibly natural: let us create a shark that is immune to shark repellent.
So now I’m going to turn the screen around again. We’ve fought through the dungeon. Character A has been shining with their THRILLING HEROICS skill. Character B has been waiting. Now we get to the boss – a giant shark! Huzzah! Except, wait! The SHARK REPELLENT doesn’t work!
On TV, this is standard horror movie fare. You never expect the shark repellent to work. In tabletop, there’s often an expectation from a player who’s been waiting all session for their five minutes of being awesome that this will work. It’s got to make up for an entire session of waiting. It better be amazing! And you know what? It didn’t work. They used the situational power that’s supposed to be equivalent to on-demand access to thrilling heroics, and it didn’t work. The shark repellent didn’t repel the shark. You’ll have to fall back on thrilling heroics again.
This entirely avoidable experience is distressingly common. I’m not saying don’t have situational abilities, necessarily.
I’m not saying this is impossible to get around. Many things get around it many ways. D&D 5e does it by providing a golf bag of different types of repellents and letting you swap them in or out, but it’s always had the problem where Turn Undead was impossible to balance, and it still doesn’t handle curses and diseases well.
I’m not saying it’s impossible for a DM to balance. Many can. I have tried. But the presence of highly powerful situational abilities that have to be planned for is pretty much a newbie trap for both players (Do Not Buy Shark Repellent) and DMs (Shark Repellent Must Always Work On Sharks). I call this the shark repellent problem. I thought everyone did. I think they probably don’t.
(thank you for coming to my TED talk)