The game master clears his throat. “As you make your way through the village,” he begins, “you notice that the northern edge seems to be sealed off by a huge stone wall. This thing is fifty feet high and obviously very thick. Beyond, you can just see the tops of a few gigantic jungle trees.
“The villagers eye you warily as you near the wall,” he continues. “They fall back, leaving the party to advance alone. As you pass the last row of huts, you see a gigantic gate set in the wall. It’s constructed of iron-bound wood and looks immensely heavy. It’s held closed by a pair of round bars the size of tree trunks.”
“Well,” says one of the players. “The first thing we have to do is figure out how to either get over the wall or open that gate. Send the thief to see if he can climb it and I’ll check with the magic-user to see about spells or scrolls.”
Of course, about thirty minutes of real time later, the same player may be whining about 40′ carnivorous apes with 150 hit points being an “unbalanced encounter.” As if he had no idea that significant threats existed outside the gigantic defensive walls.
Barriers in role playing games come in a variety of shapes. Walls. Locked doors. Bottomless chasms. Raging rivers. Collapsed tunnels. Streams of molten lava. Impenetrable jungle. Frozen mountain passes. Oceans of liquid methane. Invisible force fields. Parsecs of empty space. These are all passive barriers which restrict character movement and travel.
Perhaps the barrier is a challenge to PCs, a puzzle to be worked out. This is, of course, often the case. The engraved bronze doors leading to the third level of the labyrinth can only be unlocked with the key that the bugbear king wears on a chain around his neck. Without the map leading to the forgotten tunnel under the impassable mountains. Only by stealing the prototype blockade runner can PCs cross the void between this spiral arm of the galaxy and the next.
However, barriers should also be taken as warnings to the wise. The villagers wouldn’t live behind the huge wall if the wall served no purpose. And the wall wouldn’t be 50′ high if it was only there to keep out spider monkeys all jacked up on Mountain Dew.
If players elect to cross barriers, they must be prepared to face the consequences. Maybe that wall is a relic from an earlier age. Or, on the other hand, maybe it keeps out the dinosaurs and gargantuan apes. Don’t cross unless your eyes are wide open.
On the other hand, magical means of defeating or circumventing barriers can be taken as an indication that doing so is okay. A very common method of keeping characters of lower level away from threats beyond their means is to toss up a barrier that can only be crossed after they’ve advanced to sufficient power or have acquired a special weapon or spell that will give them a fighting chance against whatever’s on the other side. If spells and items granting the power to fly, pass through walls, or teleport, for instance, are too easy to acquire, the balance can shift significantly.
It’s not that “balance” is a required component of gaming, of course. In fact, knowing that such safeguards cannot be counted on will often enhance the enjoyment of playing. What’s the fun of your fighter risking death if you’re fairly certain that the GM would never let him actually, you know, die?
But if first level characters are constantly running into armies of orcs and ancient red dragons, the campaing will have a tough time getting off the ground and the act of rolling up new characters will soon get monotonous. Granting access to magics which defeat barriers can have the effect of encouraging PCs to venture into areas previously “out of bounds,” so be aware that things can change dramatically with even one spell or magical item.
Also, game masters should consider that the jungle or ocean that has previously marked the border of the game world may now be opened up. This can be a good thing, of course, but it can also mean that the sandbox suddenly quadrupled in size because the mage got a fancy staff.
Players would do well to consider things carefully before jumping willy-nilly into the areas beyond a barrier, and game masters should think carefully before placing magical items and spells into the campaign which will allow PCs to too easily get themselves in over their head.
Discussion of yesterday’s Wizard Bridge spell motivated me to write this. It’s something I always try to keep in mind when placing spells and magic items.