Wizard Wheeze (noun): Any action a player tries to accomplish that is not an explicit part of the rules of the megagame they’re playing. Source.
Wizard Wheezes are a patch for games to increase the possibility space without increasing mechanically complexity - but in reality they just hide that complexity and make the game harder to play, especially for new players.
We can alleviate these problems by rehabilitating the wheeze into the game's normal mechanics: making them actively support player creativity and remaining grounded in the intended setting.
Watch the Skies: Second Sight has a good example of this. In the original WTS military players could use ‘agents’ to perform mechanical actions, or take freeform actions on the map. Second Sight turned these into agent cards for each mechanical ability, as well as a pair offering different types of freeform actions.
This gives players a clear indication of some appropriate game actions and a specific call to take freeform actions at a particular time with a particular resource. This is a single mechanic in a small part of the overall game, but some games have applied the same ideas more broadly.
For game components that invite players to be creative we have the Relic cards in my own Relics of the Fall and the espionage cards in the Reading run of Shot Heard Around the Universe. Each was a card representing something distinct (non-fungible) in the game world, has a part in the regular game mechanics, and the manuals suggested that they are ideal for use in freeform actions.
Limitations like this can inspire creativity while also keeping suggestions within the intended setting of the game. In Relics a group of players combined a microphone with a gramophone and some unexploded munitions to record a fake battle, and the results were just the right level of absurd for that game.
Then you have particular parts of a game’s turn that call on the players to act freely. In City of Yendor (at MegaCon ‘21) each budget sheet had a section to allocate funds to “Other (see control, max 1/turn)” which makes it clear that freeform actions are available, how to go about doing them, and places a limit of one per team per turn.
Similarly in my Raven Banner game there is an action to spend silver and send an envoy to one of the NPC factions (Britons, Franks or Vatican) and make a deal with them. This diplomacy action is the main vector for freeform actions in the game, it has a fixed cost and place in the mechanics.
There are doubtless other ways to improve on the “anything goes” nature of the current status quo, but these are just a few lessons from recent games.
Put freeform actions into your game’s normal loop.
Set expectations about likely costs and effects.
Give players components that will funnel their creativity in positive directions.
I’d love to hear about any other games you’ve seen that try to tame the wizard wheeze, or if you have any novel ideas of your own.