Magician's Choice -- when is it good, when is it bad?

edited January 2014 in Story Games
I hadn't heard this term before JDCorley's analysis of Call of Cthulhu modules, but I've been hearing it more lately. I just found a useful definition, and it got me thinking -- what's bad about this? In a game where players are invested in driving the story with their decisions, and they think that's what's going on, then a GM offering a magician's choice is being deceptive and robbing the players' decisions of their oomph, right? But hold on a sec. If, as a player, magician's choices have any prayer of working on you, that means that the connection between your choice and the outcome is already hidden, and thus you will never get the desired oomph directly. Instead, you will get it via the GM -- "Because you guys chose to investigate the mansion, not the crypt, you're finding all these macabre secrets in the mansion! Well-chosen, players!" If that's how your choices pay off, then does it actually matter whether or not the GM was going to just place the macabre secrets wherever you went, crypt or mansion?

The implied meaning in the choice is usually something like, "Prioritize squashing the threats emanating from the crypt, or those emanating from the mansion? Which sounds worse, and needs stopping now, while you leave the other to fester and grow?" But really, without further info on the consequences of "What'll happen if we don't address the crypt's threat?", what may look like a highly random strategic character decision is actually just a player flavor decision. "Which sounds cooler to y'all as the setting for the investigation -- a crypt or a mansion?" The GM could just say this, rather than offering the magician's choice, but players who are already immersed/in-character/whatever often prefer choosing their path without jumping up to the meta level. Magician's choice, it seems to me, is largely a matter of taste. Do we prefer a moment of deception so we don't have to break character, or would we rather drop the illusion and tell it like it is? Different strokes for different folks, and agendas, and games.

I mentioned "info on consequences" above, and I think this is key. If the players choose to address "mansion" because the mansion threatens the town, and the crypt threatens the village, and the players care more about the town than the village, then that choice should have consequences, right? A magician's choice there would suck, right? Well, yes, but a magician's choice there also won't work. If you go to save the town, and then it turns out the village is fine too, then it becomes totally obvious that your choice had no meaning. This isn't magic being bad; this is just bad magic.

If everything I've said is already perfectly obvious to everyone who cares, then I guess this doesn't deserve a thread. But it wasn't obvious to me from seeing the term used on Story Games, so I wanted to broach the topic.
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Comments

  • I just wonder how this differs from illusionism.
  • It is an illusionistic technique, so it doesn't differ from illusionism.

    As I understand it, David's point is that a correctly performed illusionist technique leaves the other players with the impression that you followed procedure, when you actually didn't. I don't disagree. However, you might still be losing something in comparison to procedurally correct play, especially over the long term.

    I've noticed that one of the important things we do in games where we care about procedural hygiene is what might be termed "trust-developing exercises": when the GM is actually running the game according to procedure, they'll be overt about what they're doing, and they'll let the players have the occasional peek at the secret elements. The purpose of this pretty natural and instinctive behavior is to maintain oversight and increase trust in the GM's play being above-board.

    For example, in a drama game like Dust Devils it is not uncommon for me to remind the players of the creative basis I use when making dealer calls; for instance, when a dramatic coincidence happens, I tell the players that it's a dramatic "coincidence" (that is, an overt dealer choice), that I arbitrarily chose because it helps us bring dramatic values into confrontation. I could do this because it's my right according to the rules to do it, and by reminding the players of the decision-making heuristic I increase confidence in the fact that I'm not picking on individual players for laughs, or rolling dice to determine what happens, or anything of the sort. Likewise, in D&D I roll random encounter checks in the open, with the players knowing that it's 1/6 per half hour or whatever; by making this overt I increase faith in the system and my role as a GM.

    Now you'll see my point: the magician, even if they're formally perfect, has difficulties with these informal trust-building elements of the exercise, simply because they don't actually deserve the trust. The rules don't say that they'd ever have to show their work, but the fact remains that if their work cannot be brought into daylight without ruining it, they'll be sure to keep a much tighter lid than an honest GM with nothing to hide. This "tighter ship" that the magician runs (we all know it well: GM screens, consistently secret dicing, refusal to discuss the basis of decisions made) is overtly supposed to still run by the rules, but it is unavoidable that the level of trust the players have in the magician is less than the trust an honest GM manages to win by being available for scrutiny at any time. If your players are even a little bit cynical, they'll spot the magician's ship from a mile away by the general lack of transparency.

    (All this is actually very important and practical theory for the sort of old school D&D we've been playing around here lately. The GM who lies in this sort of game would be under such immense pressure all the time that I would never want to be in those boots, dying little deaths every time anything "unlikely" or "surprisingly convenient" occurs. The honest GM with nothing to hide not only doesn't need to worry about scrutiny, but they can also provide constant little proofs about their honesty by showing the players how they execute the procedures of play.)

    Thus my thesis: it is true that magician's choice is impossible to distinguish on a case-by-case basis when performed correctly, but it's still going to be distinguished by the general ethos of the table over a longer period of time, so we can't say that it is just the same if you had played it right. It's like many vices: immediate consequences are not much, but by engaging the vice you're harming yourself as a virtuous person, which will transform the nature of your future interactions bit by bit.
  • But the real question is whether the Magician's Choice really DOES constitute a violation of trust. As Dave already pointed out, the choice of whether to have "the next step" happen in a crypt or a mansion is essentially cosmetic. I really do not see why this should trigger such an emotional response that it needs to be denounced as dishonesty or deception.
  • edited January 2014
    For possible positive uses, it may have a role to play in genre emulation when you're looking to conclude a game in a way that mirrors the arc of a certain kind of story.

    And here I'm really thinking of, I dunno, any sort of action story that ends in some kind of big showdown.

    Players come wanting it. It's their job to get there and it's the GM's job to make sure they do. Probably more important in anything played as a one-shot or a series of linked one shots.

    Notably, this is pretty much entirely different from the type of gaming Eero is talking about.

    Having said that, it still may be a technique of dubious quality, and other better techniques may fill the same role.
  • Since this discussion assumes a game with a GM, I'll reply that for me as a player the issue would be whether the magician's choice is about the PC (my stuff) or the setting and NPCS (the GM's stuff).

    If the illusionary choice were about location (mansion or crypt) I would not mind.

    If the illusionary choice were about the effect of my PC's fighting style (agile swashbuckler or armored brute) I would feel betrayed. Why would the game offer an apparent choice in fighting style if my PC was really the same either way?
  • I agree with Eero's comments here: it doesn't matter so much to me that the Colour of the story/adventure/whatever is shifting in this way, what I find potentially unpleasant is the social circumstances which are then created. Will the GM be uncomfortable if a player asks, "Wow, I knew the clue would be in the manor all along, because of that clever hint you dropped at the beginning of the game"? How will she answer? Suddenly our social interactions are on somewhat shaky ground, and over time that can grow and have unexpected repercussions. (If the GM in the example doesn't reveal the truth, there will now be some pressure on her to do the same next time, or two reveal her earlier lie, and so forth.)

    Another issue, though, is that I'd consider a situation like that to be bad (or at least inefficient) game design/adventure design. I'm going to offer the players a choice between the manor and the crypt, but not go the extra step to add some kind of interesting consequence to the choice? It seems like very half-assed scenario design, with wasted effort on a pointless decision, whereas the important data ("how is this choice meaningful?") appears to have been left in the dust. That's an odd thing to do, I think, and pretty counter-productive.

    I can see an interesting half-way version which I would find OK, however: the GM tells the group that this is how they operate before the game starts, but, during the game, the illusion stands. "Don't ask, don't tell" holds while the action is going down, to maintain the sense of flow and the illusion of consistency, but everyone's making that choice willingly, as a group. But that doesn't address the second point I made: I'd still consider an error a skilled GM/group shouldn't have to make.
  • Typically I find it happens when a game that was previously about exploration becomes about experience. For example, in Dragonlance, the Magician's Choice is used a lot of the time, which is fine if you're all there to play the Dragonlance story but it's not fine if you're all there to explore the Dragonlance world. Shifting between these two goals is where the problem happens. If you're exploring the Dragonlance world, even a seemingly random choice (which of two unknown roads to travel down, for example) should be strictly adhered to: if the party goes down a boring road to snoresville, the GM should diligently report nothing happening and the interminable tedium of this choice, and the players should high-five each other and expand the map they're working on. "We discovered this fork in the road was boring and nothing is happening on it! ALL RIGHT!! I LOVE RPGS!! I absolutely CANNOT WAIT to come back next week."

    But if they're not there just to explore, if they want to have something happen, the Magician's Choice makes it so.

    Here's an illustration, normally a module with this kind of event says something like:

    "Whether the players go east or west, the wizard Tricky Steve approaches on the road after they've traveled several miles."

    What if instead it said:

    "The wizard Tricky Steve approaches the players a few hours after they leave town."

    Is this still a Magician's Choice? Only if the players think that they are exploring and their directional choices matter to what will happen to them.

    Another interesting thought: if Tricky Steve is powerful enough, in D&D, the Magician's Choice goes away, since he can just teleport to you or wish that he was where you were. If the module, or perhaps the GM, never tells you how powerful Tricky Steve is, does knowing that the system permits certain characters to do exactly what the GM portrays Tricky Steve as doing make things different?
  • So, I feel like illusionism is not always an issue of "fun vs not fun" or "honest vs dishonest" (although in a dysfunctional group, this is usually the case).
    But, instead, it is an issue of player vs GM buy-in. So, it is bad when the GM uses this technique and the players are not aware of it. Even players who prefer this style of play will object to it on occasion when it is used unannounced. The trick is that the choices that the players make for their characters are the player's only meaningful contribution to the game.
    On the other hand, when the players know that this technique is in play, then they can make an informed decision as to whether that style fo play is for them or not. To be clear, I am not saying the GM should be like, guys, I am about to do Magician's Choice on you, FYI. But instead when the GM is pitching a new game and peeps are making characters, the GM can let them know that because of the prep they are planning, they may need to give the characters rails on occasion. Again, this just has to do with the fact that deciding what their character does is all the a player gets to do in most games, right?
    Dave M
  • Eero said
    Thus my thesis: it is true that magician's choice is impossible to distinguish on a case-by-case basis when performed correctly, but it's still going to be distinguished by the general ethos of the table over a longer period of time, so we can't say that it is just the same if you had played it right. It's like many vices: immediate consequences are not much, but by engaging the vice you're harming yourself as a virtuous person, which will transform the nature of your future interactions bit by bit.

    I can identify with this,,,, creating a game for play I find I have little time to prep, but have a general plot leading to a goal.
    I think it became more and more obvious that I was picking the cards. (Magicians choice)
    I have tried to bring in the element of collaborative gaming with games like Microscope, In a time of sied? but the players found theses games to be like, practice for roleplaying.

    any suggestions what might help to make a group shift to collaborative play would be most welcome, my view is that players like a good magician and his tricks and catching him out is part of the fun.



  • To me, the breakpoint for what makes a Magician's Choice good is this:
    if they want to have something happen, the Magician's Choice makes it so.
    If the GM is asked and expected to contribute material to the game -- events, NPCs, plots, information, pretty much anything -- then the Magician's Choice is a way that the GM can introduce that material in an appropriate and timely fashion without twisting anyone's arm to do it. For groups which like to have things happening and to avoid long stretches where the GM is contributing nothing at all to the game, this is fine: whether you go to the crypt or the castle, something relevant to your interests will be there.
  • edited January 2014
    As a player, there is a type of situation where I am probably de facto asking for a magician's choice. This is when I get stuck and my brain freezes and I say something along the lines of "I know the adventure is over there, but I can't figure out why my character would go there. Help?" Now, this may be bad or brainless play on my part, or it may be a weak set up, but that's a side question. The main thing is that in some cases, when a player says, "I don't know how to get my PC to the adventure," it is sometimes fine to say, "Don't worry. Do what you feel your PC would do, and I'll take care of the rest."
  • That's a great point, Lisa.

    And it's not always overt: sometimes there's just a sense of frustration, because the players don't know what to do next to keep the game going, and this kind of thing can be an easy way to get things back on track. I've seen this a lot, in retrospect, and it seems to work pretty well.
  • edited January 2014
    I agree with most of what's been said. I think JD's point about "type of game" is key -- Eero's concerns are absolutely make-or-break in a game where the GM is tasked with providing fair opposition, and pretty irrelevant in a game where the players are there to revel in madness or superheroism.

    I agree with Dave M that GMs ought to announce "illusion in effect, okay?" before adopting the magician's choice technique, but I'd also say that players shouldn't sweat or argue the outcomes of meaningless decisions. If you don't have the info to make any sort of informed choice, pick at random and proceed. If that sort of decision is all you get, then yeah, that's awful GMing or scenario design, but if just comes up occasionally, it doesn't have to be a big deal.

    I should note that, as a player, I personally do not always rush through meaningless decisions, but that's because I sometimes enjoy roleplaying them. It can be a fun time for the characters to bounce off each other, establish whether we go boldly or timidly, etc. But this investment in the experience of the decision should not be mistaken for any sort of contract that our choice will make any difference to the adventure.

    As a GM, given a group tolerance/preference for imperfect transparency, it seems to me that the primary rule should not be "don't offer false choices", but rather "don't offer false rewards". If you allow/encourage the players to believe that a choice will matter in a certain way, then it'd better do that (just as DavidVS pointed out re: PC fighting style). Otherwise, do what ya like*.

    * Unless, y'know, your players don't enjoy meaningless choices but compulsively drag them out anyway, in which case I guess you might take it upon yourself to avoid that. But I wouldn't lay the blame for compulsive players at the GM's doorstep.
  • edited January 2014
    On the other hand, when the players know that this technique is in play, then they can make an informed decision as to whether that style fo play is for them or not. To be clear, I am not saying the GM should be like, guys, I am about to do Magician's Choice on you, FYI. But instead when the GM is pitching a new game and peeps are making characters, the GM can let them know that because of the prep they are planning, they may need to give the characters rails on occasion.
    I think this is wise. Another thing that is important to keep it in mind is to not rub it in the players faces. "Haha, it didn't really matter what you did." That isn't a good social behavior to start with.

    One thing I tend to strive for is to make the players feel smart. So I can move my scenario to fit their ideas. I also do that to make things flow in a better manner. Sure, I could adopt to the players ideas but that will create consequences. In the same manner, I could render the players' choices useless by using illusionary techniques.

    What's really the difference between me forcing my ideas on my players or having written consequences in the scenario? What's the difference between having person NN being a werewolf - and when the players doing wrong, showing them the consequences - and me leaving it open in the scenario who's the werewolf and then show the players the consequence of being wrong. The latter renders the players' choices useless but I would do that to create a flow and mostly because I wanted the scenario to be a in a certain way and I wanted some moments to happen to bring the right atmosphere. Perhaps I had planned that the death of the grandpa would release some strong emotional moments? Should I play the scenario and hope that they would guess wrong or should I plan for it? Because sometimes, all you want is to give the players a sensation.

    I wouldn't rub in their faces afterwords that it didn't matter what they did, the werewolf would still eat the grandpa. That would still be a part of the scenario. What would instead change is who's the werewolf. I would tell the players that it would be railroady in the beginning of the session, but I would still make it look like they had choices.
  • I'm a little confused about the terminology, actually. This seems to be about the phenomenon I'd call "Schroedinger's Room", where preplanned plot elements are not fixed in place until observed by the players. The term "Magician's Choice" gives me another mental image, however, possibly because I've casually dipped into close-up magic over the years and am very familiar with how a Magician's Choice actually works. :-)

    A real-life Magician's Choice is about tricking players into choosing one specific outcome through disorientation. (Truth be told, I don't like saying even that much; it's a magician quirk, even for those who aren't super-dedicated. But then again, you can find umpteen places telling you how the Magician's Choice works.) It works because of ambiguity and momentary choice, and doesn't work on every person.

    That is to say, with a group of seasoned RPG players, you would never manage an actual Magician's Choice.

    Sorry, that's a bit of a tangent and my two cents. I just find the terminology to be confusing. I tend to prefer above-the-board negotiation, not using techniques like this to jockey to the position everyone wants. It's like when Vincent Baker talks about not keeping secrets in Dogs in the Vineyard: if not knowing information is hindering the objective of the game, then either it's not important to hide that information or you're seeding the information wrong. (There's a bunch of habits regarding how you sew information in investigative games that I have problems with.)
  • Aw c'mon Carpe, that's pretty much the first card trick every kid ever learns. I think we can be pretty forward with the info. We don't bother to spoiler tag Citizen Kane anymore.
  • Fair enough. :-P Like I said--I just don't like talking about the mechanisms of illusions, even if it's something silly-elementary like that.

    So the Magician's Choice is just "okay, point to a card", not explaining what that pointing signifies. You interpret the audience's input in the way that you want it to. If they point to the card you want them to have, then you say "Okay, that's your card!" If they point to the card you don't want them to have, then you say "Okay, then we'll discard this card!"

    You need to run it slickly and never run it twice. You can usually Magician's Choice out of a larger number of cards if you vary up the method used to narrow down their options. So you have them pick a number once, then you start counting piles so that you'll wind up on the pile that has the card you want to give them. Or you have them pick evens or odds, and use that to eliminate cards.

    In gaming terms, the Magician's Choice would be deliberately misinterpreting any player decisions which run counter to the outcome you want to give them.
  • I was seeing it as the plot remains the same no matter if you pick the mansion or the crypt. your still going to play with the plot I have predetermined.
  • I would think that one effect of using the Magician's Choice would be a vast reduction in unexpected outcomes, at least on a macro level. If every direction becomes the right way, the players and DM will never have the fun of going the wrong way. Granted, it's not always fun and I'm sure that contributes to the lure of using the Magician's Choice to begin with but often it's the unexpected that's the most memorable.
  • I would think that one effect of using the Magician's Choice would be a vast reduction in unexpected outcomes, at least on a macro level. If every direction becomes the right way, the players and DM will never have the fun of going the wrong way.
    Yes! Very well said.


  • Thanks for the magic terminology info, CG. I only used the term "Magician's Choice" because it's already been used a bunch to describe the phenomenon I wanted to discuss, and I don't know another short term. "RPG player choices where the player might, with or without good reason, think they're influencing some relevant outcome, but really they're not" is unwieldy.
  • edited January 2014
    Todd, I'd say that if unexpected macro outcomes were a priority, the group should just "play to find out", without any planned paths, right or wrong.

    Railroading or regular use of magician's choice would be the opposite end of the spectrum.

    The in-between space, where right and wrong paths exist, and the GM can support both, and even the wrong path will be fun to play through, seems to be a tall order for many GMs. I agree with you, though, that it can be super fun when it works!

    Personally, I generally prefer a mix of choices -- some high-impact, consequential stuff; some overt meta; some outcome-irrelevant stuff that's really about experience and color (e.g. magician's choice).
  • The times I've found it to be a problem the most is when it becomes overt, the more it's clear that the gm is manipulating events to get a predetermined outcome. I guess that's why it's called illusionism, when the magic works and you dont see how it was done everybody is amazed if you can see the strings it's just a lame trick. The more lame tricks I see the less invested I become and the less effort I put into creating solutions/more content to let the gm come up with them since he's going to do it anyways.
  • edited January 2014
    I was seeing it as the plot remains the same no matter if you pick the mansion or the crypt. your still going to play with the plot I have predetermined.
    Kinda-sorta.

    Can I offer a comparison of two systems, specifically Trail of Cthulhu vs Call of Cthulhu?

    Even fans of CoC will admit that blown rolls for investigation can cause an adventure to veer wildly off track, especially if it happens multiple times. It's one game where I know I've used Magician's Choice at times in the past as GM. It's a quick and dirty patch to move a clue to another place rather than to require to much backtracking by PCs. Or, y'know, just make up another similar clue to find.

    ToC gets somewhat around this by it's investigative skill system. OTOH, it to will eventually get you to one (of several possible) outcomes.

    In both cases, there are plenty of ways to get where you're going, different details as you get to the end of the thing, and ways that player decisions do in fact matter. OTOH, everyone came, presumably, for an investigation culminating in some sort of resolution, usually involving some kind of showdown/tense climax/whatever.

    Magician's Choice in the situation of CoC going way off mark is a tool for getting things back where they need to be, crude but valuable.

    I guess MC could be valuable in pretty much anything that involves an investigation or some kind of one-shot that you want to wrap up after x amount of time, especially with some kind of showdown.

    I doubt it would be your first choice, however. Really, it's meant more as a patch than SOP, right? Not too much different in its own way from "send in a pair of guys with guns".

  • edited January 2014
    Magician's Choice -- when is it good, when is it bad?

    So its a kind of patch, I know this off the thread a bit but,

    I would add , (Link to Gm definition)
    used by the player with the role of a gamemaster in a traditional role-playing game who weaves the other participants' player-character stories together, control the non-player aspects of the game, create environments in which the players can interact, and solve any player disputes.

    Reason I add this is because in a collaborative game where no one person controls the gm position is it not impossible to use mc ?

    and I wonder if collaborative type play dispels the magic felt by players. Thats why it feels like practice rather than roleplay by the group I game with. This only an observation or personal opinion.




  • edited January 2014
    Reason I add this is because in a collaborative game where no one person controls the gm position is it not impossible to use mc ?

    and I wonder if collaborative type play dispels the magic felt by players. Thats why it feels like practice rather than roleplay by the group I game with. This only an observation or personal opinion.
    More collaborative style play, especially going outside of controlling just a single character, seems to throw a whole lot of people off from what they consider to be the RPG experience, especially if they haven't done much GMing themselves.

    Trying to work things towards Destiny Points in Archipelago might be an example of trying to do something similar, but openly, in a collaborative game. Of course, done openly, there's no magician's skill in hiding this. Everyone knows it's happening, but I suppose it could be more or less smooth in how it is done.

    I'm curious how some of the urge to do stuff that ties in with the use of Magician's Choice is viewed when there are more collaborative style games where certain events will happen eventually, like say Shab il Hiri Roach's events through the course of the year.

    I realize those aren't the same things, but they strike me as being related.


  • Reason I add this is because in a collaborative game where no one person controls the gm position is it not impossible to use mc ?
    Not impossible at all. All it takes is players who aren't listening to each other and are instead just waiting for a chance to speak.
  • Yea not listening is an obvious mc or Magicians dispel. :)

    I was looking at Unsung Tales its not complete but has some great ideas for collaborative play.
    I like that one player is the hero and the other players take on the roll of gm sort of, trying to create serious dangers for the hero using their Motive cards. Also there is a plot card which is given to the most experienced player.
    As I see it you have to create insights of how your motives can be woven into the story gaining you danger tokens.
    Once you have a danger token you can put the hero in real danger.

    Now the bit I dig is that the players dont now where the story is going only some rough pointers from Motive, Plot, Location and charcter cards.
    They have to weave the story together 2nd guessing what everyone else is up to. A bit like the magicians choice.

    The game end is run by a max of 12 danger tokens once used the hero has accomplished the plot







  • Whether it's a GM or another player, the issue is still the type of game you're in.

    In Primetime Adventures, if I decide it's time for a villainous character to make his move, I can make that the agenda of the scene almost no matter what the player before me said. Whether we're at the crypt or the mansion (for example) doesn't really matter because "television continuity" is not the same as scrupulously looking into a perfectly internally consistent world and determining where someone would be and what they'd be doing. PTA is a game that focuses on the experience of a serialized television show, not on, say, exploring the fictional world a television show or novel created.
  • PTA is an interesting example. I would say that you're right, you can frame scenes pretty much however you want, but there's also no social expectation that, for example, hiding in the crypt will prevent the villain from finding you there.
  • The problem with the "illusion of choice" approach is that when Player 1 thinks that something is meaningful and Player 2 doesn't it can easily lead to a breakdown in the game. First, if the person whose fun was predicated on believing they made meaningful contributions finds out that they really didn't then their past fun gets deflated. Second, training yourself to view others' contributions as worthless can be a dangerous habit that manifests even when you don't want it to. Third, forcing yourself to provide fake acknowledgement of things you believe are meaningless is effortful work (notice that a lot of people report a burnout problem with illusionist GMing). Fourth, if you are actively concealing and misdirecting where your meaningful contributions are coming into the game then the odds are high that your contributions won't get recognized or appreciated, which can also be draining.

    Generally speaking it seems like it would just be simpler to play games where people's contributions are transparently meaningful, then everyone can just express genuine appreciation if and when they feel it, rather than be obligated to provide a constant stream of pleasing deception to everyone else. That would require the games to be designed to facilitate that, though. The PTA example is good in that it shows that players can be synchronized on how meaningful something should be, e.g. the location of a scene in a game that's using TV conventions is mostly about background color, and neither the player or GM treat it as more or less weighty than that.
  • Let me just say that seeing the pros and cons of Illusionism being debated seems weird to me, but it could be that I'm just old. I think the subject was pretty well hashed out back in the day.

    Illusionism: http://random-average.com/TheoryTopics/Illusionism

    And when everyone involved knows that — and is on-board with — Illusionism is being used, it got termed Participationism: http://random-average.com/TheoryTopics/Participationism

    Anyway, I think Eero and Dan have it right.

    Using this technique without buy-in is fraught with peril. Games are fundamentally about the choices available to the participants; remove those choices ("deprotagonize" or "deny player agency", depending on your age) and we have to question whether it's even a game any more. Perhaps it's now an "experience", and the players see value in that, but even if so, IMO you're addressing needs that are better met with other media: movies, TV, theater, books, comics, etc.
  • edited January 2014
    Yeah, "warn people before you get all illusionist" is good advice and old news. However, I think magician's choice specifically is a different issue than illusionism generally, because it could be argued that problems in play occur not just because a GM forces a magician's choice on their players, but because players fail to distinguish meaningful from irrelevant choices even when that information is available.
    Generally speaking it seems like it would just be simpler to play games where people's contributions are transparently meaningful
    There's a reason why this isn't happening, and that's kind of my point. Once you endow the fiction with causal power, stuff's gonna crop up that the game is agnostic on. A good RPG supports meaningful decisions, yes, but those game-supported decisions are never the only ones the players will be making.

    What's necessary, it seems to me, is some sort of methodology or attitude to distinguish which choices deserve which treatments. I suggest looking to rewards -- if the system doesn't offer any, and the GM doesn't offer any, then the choice is arbitrary and should be treated as such. Magician's choice strikes me as a fine way to handle arbitrary choices -- it may be so non-problematic, in fact, that up-front transparency may not even be needed.
    Games are fundamentally about the choices available to the participants; remove those choices ("deprotagonize" or "deny player agency", depending on your age) and we have to question whether it's even a game any more. Perhaps it's now an "experience", and the players see value in that, but even if so, IMO you're addressing needs that are better met with other media: movies, TV, theater, books, comics, etc.
    For players who agree with this, the issue is pretty straightforward. Engage with the truly meaningful choices, don't sweat the rest.

    However, I think the desire for "RPG as experience" is a huge part of why many people engage in RPGs. Certainly a lot of people I know. It's not that big choices cease to be important, it's just that spending some time on experience is also important, and little choices like "how would my character comment on this situation?" become relevant.

    The desire to interact with the fiction in a certain way, whether the focus be virtual experience, colorful narration, leisurely character exploration, immersion, simulation or experiment, leads many a group to the fork in the road between crypt and mansion thinking "this matters" even when it doesn't. I suppose one could task the GM with making every choice meaningful, so the players don't have to break immersion or whatever to speed through the arbitrary ones, but that doesn't seem quite fair to me.

    Perhaps there could be a rule that governs this part of the conversation? Could "we're sweating an uninformed choice" trigger some procedure that satisfyingly resolves it?
  • There's a reason why this isn't happening
    More than one, and not the one you seem to assume, but I don't think I can respond in more depth without getting snarky, so I'll need to drop out of the thread in order to satisfy my self-imposed no-snark rule.
  • edited January 2014
    Why would this be a cause for snark? I'm definitely interested in your take.

    The reason I cited is simply something I've seen in play a lot -- a group gets caught up in the moment of experience (which they usually enjoy), bogs down sweating a meaningless decision that isn't easily handled by an otherwise fine formal system, and then after the session realizes, "We shoulda just picked something." In my experience, this improves with practice and attention, and once it does, magician's choice can become a non-issue.

    Of course there are tons of other reasons why any given game might suck, but I'm trying to stick to addressing the interesting case here -- a game that isn't hopelessly flawed, with players who aren't awful, etc.
  • It's about information theory, then. In a strictly old-school, sandbox game, sometimes decisions just need to be made. One of the things that has kept me away from NY RedBox is Tavis telling me about all the times they take 2-3 hours to decide which way to go in a corridor. Now, unlike in the MC example, there probably is a real difference between left and right, since there is an objective dungeon map to consult. But the issue *is* similar in that sometimes people simply don't know enough to understand when there simply aren't enough meaningful clues to make an informed decision.

    Matt
  • edited January 2014
    Totally. If the telltale scent of a known monster wafts from one corridor and the gleam of treasure sparkles from the other, maybe we have fodder for a few minutes of conversation, but if the fear of What's On The Map prolongs this beyond the point of fun, we have Fail. I think this is true regardless of whether or not there is a map.

    One could say that it's Tavis's job to jump in and say, "Look guys, you simply don't know your odds well enough to compare them, just suck it up and make an uninformed choice," but I think there are other priorities or habits in play which prevent this. Perhaps the general rule of thumb "don't ruin challenges for players with metagame advice" is being over-applied?

    With Delve my group eventually came to handle this informally, with occasional reminders from the Pacing Dial staring at us, but my efforts to make the game portable included a "risks/rewards/info about our options" worksheet. Very brief testing showed that it was useful, but not much fun, so I remain interested in alternative tools.
  • Are we back full circle, at where I was saying that Magician's Choice and the whole idea of a painstaking decision are at odds with each other?

    Because why is the GM using Magician's Choice in the same game where the players would spend lots of time deliberating a (presumably) important strategic decision? It sounds like a horrible mismatch. I would very sincerely hope to *never* see those two things appearing in the same game together...
  • edited January 2014
    Haven't you ever played a game with some important strategic decisions and some arbitrary ones where you lost track of which was which?

    I think it's a result of the sort of "think outside the box" problem-solving that RPGs uniquely enable. In a video game you have only so many options, but in an RPG you can create your own options. "Crypt or mansion?" may be arbitrary, but that fact may not stop the players from trying to do something clever like summon a minion to bring a walkie-talkie to the path not chosen, so the PCs can keep tabs on both, or what have you. Which is awesome! I suspect that's part of why Tavis allows the Red Box folks all the time they want. But not every such creative problem-solving effort bears fruit, and that standard becomes a problem if employed habitually.
  • I think that, in a "Red Box"-style game (I feel comfortable making this vague statement because I've played with Tavis, and I'm pretty sure we're on the same page here), there is no such thing as an arbitrary decision. In the hardcore OSR-type play, any misstep can mean death. Yes, sometimes the players don't have enough information to make that decision intelligently, but the outcome will certainly be different (potentially lethally so!). There's no question of the GM later deciding to shift things around so that the choice wasn't important after all.

    Yes, sometimes it's entirely possible that the players will waste time on a decision that ultimately isn't important, simply because they didn't know that the two corridors they were investigating actually form a loop, and they'll have to traverse the trap in the middle of the loop no matter whether they go left or right. But I don't see what that has to do with the "Magician's Choice" at all! It seems like a totally separate topic ("If one player knows that a presumably important choice being made by the group actually *isn't*, should they speak up in order to save the group the trouble - even though it goes against the regular procedures of play?").

    But maybe I'm just not getting this! Tell me more.
  • edited January 2014
    We agree on everything except this:
    there is no such thing as an arbitrary decision.
    I've played with some groups whose sensibility was pretty darn old-school, and even their dungeons did occasionally include irrelevant choices. As a player, spending an hour prepping how to enter a room that turns out to be empty is a major bummer. Better for the GM to just shift the interesting content into the chosen room. It seems to me that, with the right attitude on the players' part, Tavis would be free to do this, and I don't see any downsides. (That is, provided he is a fair arbitrator/opponent when required, and thus the players don't need "not rigged!" reassurances.)
  • Yeah, I don't see that as an arbitrary decision, just a wasteful one. (The problem, of course, is that, in this instance, it's wasting the *players'* time instead of the *characters'* time.)

    There's no particularly easy solution to this. I find it hard to imagine how a GM could do the sort of jury-rigging you're describing without losing the impartiality necessary to GM in that style. (As a simple example, if you've got some bad guys waiting two rooms further along, but the room is long and narrow, when you move them into this closer, round room, where will you place them? Can you make that decision in some sensible and fair even though you've just heard the players' plan for the attack? Maybe... but it's quite a juggling act, and threatens the entire contract of play in that style, I would think.)

    In these situations, I've seen more luck dealing with it on the players' side: they can simply now use that same march order/room entry technique on the next room, verbatim, once it's revealed that this room is empty. ("Ok, we do the same thing to the next door!")
  • Illusionism: http://random-average.com/TheoryTopics/Illusionism

    And when everyone involved knows that — and is on-board with — Illusionism is being used, it got termed Participationism: http://random-average.com/TheoryTopics/Participationism
    Good thing that you reminded me. I always tend to forget participation. It seems like illusionism is "participation done bad".
  • Good thing that you reminded me. I always tend to forget participation. It seems like illusionism is "participation done bad".
    Only if you think that lying to the other players is inherently bad.
  • Please elaborate. Just know it seems like you're saying something in the same manner as "Conscience is the fear of getting caught." :)
  • Just an idle attempt at wit. Those are merely the meanings of the words: "illusionism" refers to the exact same division of labour at the game table as "participationism", except that the GM is lying to the players about it. Thus a hypothetical (or less so, in the Internet) defender of illusionism might say that there's nothing wrong with illusionism, because there's nothing wrong with participationism (few think that there is), and misleading the other players is not necessarily bad. The point being, you're only correct about illusionism being "participationism done bad" if lying to the other players is bad.
  • You know, it might be worth dissecting why this technique came to be used.

    Let's assume no malice was intended. Let's assume that the GMs using this technique felt they were doing something good, either for themselves or the players.

    This may well point us to when it is beneficial, no?
  • edited January 2014
    I think the term "participationism" is worthless and should be dropped, and that the supposed distinction between it and illusionism is faulty, precisely because it is the alleged difference between "honesty" and "dishonesty" that distinguishes them. That is, the label does not describe any difference in action, but only in perception.

    However, I have some shocking news for you. You know when you see a movie, and some guy gets shot? Well, that's not real blood, and the guy didn't actually die.

    Some degree of "deception" is not at all unusual in the performance of many kinds of art. In fact, we recognise that in these other forms, that act of "deception" is one of the things that contributes to the value of the experience; nor do we accuse the performers who carry out these "deceptions" of bearing ill-will toward their audiences. Now you can cogently argue that RPG's are a different form and may procede differently, but it can simply be assumed as axiomatic that any form of "deception" is inherently and automatically a bad, abusive thing.

    “Art is the most beautiful deception of all. And although people try to incorporate the everyday events of life in it, we must hope that it will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.”
    - Claude Debussy
  • The deception in illusionism is not artistic in nature, though. Or rather, there is that sort of deception as well in rpgs (and not just illusionist ones, either), but the type of deception that gets some people's hackles up is better compared to cheating in a game than willing suspension of disbelief in a movie. The objectionable bit is not when the GM e.g. misleads one to think that the wrong guy was the murderer; the objection comes in when we're supposedly playing a game with objective scenarios with win and loss conditions, but in reality the GM is fudging dice or pre-empting choices behind his screen to create the mere illusion of interactive, consequential action. The former is artistic deception, the latter is breaking rules, at least the rules that the player thinks the game runs by. (The sad truth is that we have a rich tradition of double-faced rpg texts that say multiple things about the nature of the game, leaving everybody to form their own opinions, often so that players of the game intentionally have an incomplete picture of what the GM is actually doing. I imagine that participationism would be more common, and illusionism less so, if game texts were clearer about these things.)

    A simple gut-check that anybody can use to distinguish between artistic deception and lying about the game you play: if your mark actually knows and tacitly participates in the illusion you depict, then it's a participationist activity, and as Gareth says, common in the arts; willing suspension of disbelief, as it's often called. However, if your secrets are of such nature that you don't dare reveal them, because their existence would be considered a betrayal by your audience, and your craft would no longer be respected if it became known that you cheat, then chances are that you're doing illusionism. By this measure it's easy to see that fake violence in movies is benign - it surprises nobody that it's fake, nobody gets angry at being led by the nose, nobody needs to revise their understanding of their movie-watching hobby because they'd completely misunderstood the entire thing. Also by this same measure we can see that the dice fudging in e.g. Tri-Stat games is illusionist: the parts of the rules that the players are reasonably expected to read depict a game that is different from the one the GM is guided to run, and the GM is instructed to hide his dice fudging from the players to preserve their (misplaced) trust in the GM's fairness.

    But yes, this was what I was getting at above: illusionism is only "participationism done badly" if you think that lying to the other players about the rules and procedures of the game is inherently bad. If one is willing to accept that sometimes deception is good, then I guess illusionism can be defended as well.

    And of course, if anybody thinks that this is a harsh characterization of illusionism: you don't have to defend an empty word, you can just say that OK, apparently Eero insists on using this word for something so stupid that I've never done anything like that myself. Fair enough, and maybe all your play is participationist, then. That's exactly why the distinction between these two concepts was coined, so we could talk about consensual illusionism separately from the other kind. (Also, it goes without saying that I don't really care about the words themselves; if it bothers anybody that I'm maligning a word they like, we can use different words. Sometimes it sort of seems like people have internalized the idea that they are illusionists, and thus they have to defend that word, convince others that the word itself does not associate with anything problematic.)
  • So, okay. let's riff off what Eero mentioned.

    Players think they are getting game type X.

    However, their own actions and wants are contradictory with getting Game Type X.

    MC becomes a patch for those contradictions to produce Game Type X.

    What is Game Type X exactly?

    I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet it has its roots in moving out of sandboxy dungeon crawling as the main desired activity and towards a desire for something more like inspirational books/movies/comics.
This discussion has been closed.