Standard Rants on Illusory Play & Practices

edited August 2014 in Story Games
On the Forge, people had "standard rants" about recurring topics and they assigned them numbers and names, and they'd just link to them whenever they felt people were rehashing old topics without understanding all the progress that had been made before.

This is a thread to collect ideas about illusionism, participationism, railroading, hidden force of GMs or other players, and so on. I'm not going to define any of these things for the thread, but it's a good idea if posters define their own terms.

Here are some ground rules for the thread.

1. You get ONE POST. You can edit it perpetually to refine your views. (And, um, this doesn't count as my one post.)

2. Your post should be essentially as self-sufficient as possible. This is an essay, not a conversation. Define your terms.

3. This is not a conversation. Have conversations elsewhere. Link to them in your post, if you like. Don't write responses to other people. Don't address other people.

4. Keep things polite. However, it's understood that there are ethical issues on many sides of these issues, so it's not like you can't talk about those things. Tread gently, avoid sarcasm, etc.

5. If you want to discuss anything "meta" about this thread, do so in the Meta Discussion about the RULES of the Standard Rants on Illusory Play & Practices thread. <=)


Changed the subject title to remove the world "illusionism."

These are essays. They don't have to be "rants." That's just a reference to the old Forge "standard rants" that turned into a way of saying, "Hey, I already have a thing prepared for this."

It's probably a good idea to avoid referring to the title of the thread, even, because it's in flux. Make your post as independent as possible.

You can't have more than one post, but you can have multiple topics if they're interconnected. That seems fair!


  • edited August 2014
    I define the curtain techniques as the DM disguising certain game play elements as others.
    Examples include
    • disguising a roll of 20 as a roll of an 8.
    • disguising a pre-planned sequence of rooms as a choice between rooms.
    • disguising improvisation as prep.
    • disguising prep as improvisation.

    What’s common to these curtain techniques is that they make it hard for the players to know exactly what sort of game they are engaged in.

    Examples don’t include things like:
    • “You meet a priest” but the priest was really a fighter in disguise, or
    • “Susan was arrested for the murder” but she was really innocent

    What’s common to these, non-curtain techniques, are that they make it hard for the players to know exactly the state of the fictional world of the game they are engaged in.

    The players’ relationship with the curtain techniques can include:
    • They know the GM uses them occasionally but they don’t know when or how much, and they like it that way
    • The GM thinks they approve but they really don’t
    • They don’t approve, the GM knows it, but does it anyway.

    I don’t mind it if groups are enjoying play with these techniques but I’m personally interested in exploring what we can achieve without these techniques.
    I’ve often criticized the techniques and for that I apologize.

    To me this is a wholly separate issue from the issue of a pre-planned sequence of events or scenes.
    A pre-planned sequence of events and scenes can be played by overtly stating things like “OK, a week pass, and now you’re in Paris” instead of using the curtain techniques to get the player characters to Paris.
    This is also why I haven’t used the word “playstyle” in my rant. The curtain techniques can be incorporated in many playstyles. Their use does not mean that the DM wants to steer the narrative along a prewritten line of scenes.
  • edited August 2014
    1. Normatively, the word "illusionism" is ill defined and impossible to achieve consensus on. That's because it's a pejorative which is useless as technical term.

    2. Functionally, acts which appear to some as illusionism appear to others as a normal class of didactic mechanisms used by artists in the creation of their art. This differs from game to game, group to group, and artform to artform.

    3. The only universal quality belonging to this word is the fact that using it will cause arguments.

    The first two observations are my own. The third is something we have all experienced.

    ETA: But note:

    Many people here are speaking ideally about SC and CA, like, in a world where everybody has the same basic understanding and similar values, comes from the same (gaming) culture, and is ready to state their position. But in the real world, outside of salons and gaming conventions, where "regular people" who've never roleplayed before get invited to a game and decide to try it out, RPGs are taught just like every other kind of game is taught - i.e. rather stochastically - but starting with a broad overview of the objectives, the key mechanics, and the establishment of rough boundaries which imply some things about design intention, creative agenda and social contract. But words like this are NEVER used, and illuminating people to the point of having a discussion about these concepts would overshadow or push back the entire experience - which is alleged to be the point, and to be fun. Hu-uh. Baby, don't work.

    The primary goal in such a situation is to Start Playing. Since the overview has been stated and the key mechanics have been laid out, you simply begin. And if you're not a sociopath who's lured them here to devour their souls, you play nice, like a sibling or a friend. You help them a lot. You avoid getting into any details that would confuse them or take them out of play mode until necessary. You hold their hand, but explain that you won't do that next time. You will flesh out their understanding in a "fractal" way, zooming in here and there, as the game proceeds. You will teach by doing. You will go from general stuff to more specific stuff, pausing just before a new subsystem is introduced to give an overview of what's about to happen. Their growing understanding of both the game and the social dynamics of the table will be rhizomic, not linear, and it will come together strand by strand.

    This is what happens whenever you teach anyone a new and complex game, sport or subject. The conversation does not begin with a detailed discussion of personal philosophical positions because it cannot, although after the session it may certainly end with one.

    The "social contract" in this "real world" I describe is not fully defined in the Player's mind before play. It is roughly sketched out at first, and may vary based on the social dynamics of the room, or even the time of day. Then throughout the process of play it is refined by verbal cues, picked up via mental osmosis and guided by heuristic boundaries. It is negotiated in realtime, in an intricate and invisible dance that humans do with each other every day, and if you listen closely to it, it is different every time.

  • edited August 2014
    Illusory play should be used in groups with players who fall into AT LEAST ONE of these categories:

    * they are into being transported by their fictional experience, in the classical sense,
    * they want excellent gameplay pitched to their actual and preferred levels of skill and challenge,
    * they want their fictional experience to be structured beyond the reach of the mechanics they can deploy - this normally manifests as just wanting to play their characters, but it can apply to any mechanics. They want what happens to make narrative sense even if their own actions might not always.

    AND the following separate category:

    * they value any of these three things over fidelity to the wishes or desires of a distant game designer.


    "Consent" and "deception" is not a good way to think about this topic in any way. I no more "consent" to the GM using a "deceptive" tactic than I do "consent" to Black playing 3 ...a6 to respond to the Ruy Lopez. Yes, Black can play 3 ...a6, but what permits him to do so is not my "consent".

    Similarly for the techniques normally complained about. They may break the rules, like if Black tried to play 3 ...a4. They may fail to break the rules but still create a negative experience, like if I just plain don't like the Morphy Defense and am bored with virtually all games that result from 3 ...a6. Sometimes it's even completely game- and technique-independent complaints that are nonetheless hung on the technique. "Black played 3 ...a6, and then spit in my soda!"


    In most games with GMs, the role of the GM isn't simply an impartial beep boop machine who scrupulously reports the ironclad consistent workings of a thoroughly detailed world and overwhelmingly the texts and practices of these games firmly and pointedly say this to anyone who cares to listen; there simply is no more that can be done in this direction. GMs fulfill their various roles in many ways, usually specific to the game. Saying to a Call of Cthulhu GM "these monsters are unfair!" is a pointless complaint - saying it to a D&D3 DM makes more sense.

    Once you actually read what (say) a DM does in D&D3, it makes sense why having an ogre attack on the left road instead of the right road as you wrote in your notes before the game might be a good idea. Or it might not! But under no circumstances is the goodness or badness of this determined by "consent", and under no circumstances has "deception" taken place.
  • I will probably have to edit this later. It is a sort of placeholder. I understand this is my perspective, and not others'. I understand there are edge cases and exceptions, and likely strong, incisive counter-examples. I'll come back to it when I have better insights. And thanks for setting up this thread, Adam.

    In roleplaying games, people are generally playing pretend with one another. This playing pretend generates a fiction of sorts. Each part of this fiction is generated by the people playing according to principles or rules that they agree on, more or less tacitly or implicitly. One of the main functions of these rules or principles is to indicate whose vision of a given part of the fiction has authority, at a given time.

    The principles or rules I am referring to, express or implied, are at their highest level frequently called the Social Contract. This is essentially the agreement to play pretend together, and other rules or principles depend on and from it. The reason, or possibly goal, for getting together and playing pretend with these particular rules and principles is something I'm going to call Creative Agenda. Creative Agenda is a sort of large-scale principle of play under the Social Contract. Each instance of fiction more-or-less accords with, against, or acts obliquely to the Creative Agenda, and as I mentioned above each instance of fiction has some kind of authority behind it.

    Traditionally, much or most of this authority has been in the hands of one person. The various historical and practical reasons this divide exists in the way it has is very important to the subject of Illusionism, possibly central to the subject and still very relevant, so I hope my desire to set it aside for now does not imply that I feel it is not important. This tradition has informed almost all roleplaying games, especially the design aspect meant to pass along particular principles of play through text, even if (often especially if) that game means to subvert or refute some quality of that traditional division of authority.

    I hope is is not confusing or controversial to say that authority frequently comes with responsibility. The responsibility that attends most authority in playing pretend with others is usually that of being entertaining, engaging, enjoyable, and probably some other words that don't start with the letter E. I contend that the degree to which that authority is employed to reinforce or support the Creative Agenda is the degree to which the attendant responsibility is being met. When most of the authority is concentrated in one player, that player ends up having most of the responsibility for the attendant enjoyability of play.

    This traditional division of authority and the attendant bulk of responsibility leaves this central player needing techniques born of principles that support the Creative Agenda. Importantly to the subject of Illusionism, this player frequently needs techniques that redirect attention and focus to the fictional outcome and away from the more laborious or effort-consuming processes involved in generating that fiction, especially if those unobscured processes might be distracting or contentious in light of the Creative Agenda. In fact, I think these sundry techniques comprise the bulk of Illusionism, the focus of which seems to be drawing attention to fictional outcome and away from the methods used to arrive there.

    Often, people have little or no difficulty negotiating their Social Contract or getting on the same Creative Agenda, whether before or during playing pretend. That said, often enough to spark debate, they do. This can be exacerbated by everything that normally exacerbates human negotiation, but uniquely to playing pretend together Who has What authority to say Which about the fiction is frequently the difficulty. This category of difficulty has spawned a host of rules and principles of play, often to compensate for rules and principles of play that contributed or led to dysfunction in the first place, but sometimes to compensate for dysfunction originating at the Social Contract level (i.e. playing at the expense of others rather than together; this is not a hypothetical or rare enough circumstance to ignore, and is a source of much vitriol).

    When a player denies another player their desired choices, fictional outcomes, that would be legit under the Creative Agenda, then that is Railroading. Railroading is usually accomplished using Illusionist techniques- drawing attention away from the processes or methods used to arrive at that fictional outcome. Sometimes authority has simply accrued to a player of the game such that little or no Illusionism is needed to Railroad. Sometimes nothing resembling a discussion of Creative Agenda has taken place, or is permitted, and so there is no chance to agree on it. Sometimes primary authority over the fiction is conflated with primary authority over the Social Contract and then leads to a noticeable conflict of interests if something resembling Illusionist techniques are used to draw attention away from the basis of that authority.
  • Theory can go far into relativism about what the terms mean for every person, since everyone has a different experience about the same subjects. I'm looking for a practical application of ideas that can get me functional and healthy gameplay. Functional healthy gameplay in my mind equals to people having fun, which can be attained through different means, that will be different for different people. So, it's not like there's a single way to have fun, nor we can decide that this is better than other.

    Every way of having fun has a good side and a bad side, some have a lot of potential to make the group's social tension unbearable, specially when the fun depends on way too many factors concentrated on the less amount of people. But even that doesn't make those ways of having fun bad, as there are people perfectly able to cope with lots of details.
  • There is a style of roleplaying where the GM has a specific plot in mind, or at least specific scenes and developments he wants to reach through play, and the players agree to go along with this plot and to put a good bit of their energy into characterization, immersion, interaction, vivid description, etc. and other enjoyable parts of roleplaying. This style of roleplaying usually has a bargain between GM and players that can be tacit or explicit -- the players give up some of their autonomy and follow the GM's lead, and in exchange the GM uses this control to tell a satisfying story with a nice rising arc of conflict, foreshadowing, set-pieces, and so on. Often the players will afterwards describe this as having played out a "great movie" or "amazing story". This style of roleplaying is common, in part due to the examples of many linear plotted modules and adventures in the hobby.

    This style of roleplaying is not to everyone's tastes. Some players will strongly object to this style and will be angry to find out the GM is using these techniques. Other players don't mind, but will complain if the GM acts clumsily or obviously to restrict player choices and force certain outcomes. Not every gaming group has explicit discussions about these issues.

    "Participationism" means running a game in this style where everyone, players and GM, agrees to it.
    "Illusionism" means running a game in this style but allowing the players to think that it's going to be a different, nondirective type of game. Some players will get very angry in this situation or consider this a betrayal of the players.

    "Railroading" is a complaint about the GM forcing certain outcomes in a clumsy manner -- it could be a complaint about Illusionism or it could just be the player complaining about the clumsiness.
  • edited August 2014
    Players going into a game need to know three things:

    1) How much agency they will have to affect outcomes.

    A propos of my example from a recent thread on the topic, I played a game about front-line soldiers (actually fighter pilots) on Sunday, and the game's pitch included the fact that the topic of the game isn't whether or not you win the war, but how it the war affects you and your squad. Right away, I would expect that only the GM player would have authority over big-picture questions about the overall arc of the war. Bam. No problem.

    2) How, in a general way, the game's resolution mechanic(s) work.

    If there aren't any, "we talk it out" or whatever is perfectly fine, as long as everyone agrees on that upfront. "It works like this, but the GM will sometimes ignore a die roll for the sake of drama," is a common practice that is almost never explained until after it happens the first time.

    3) What the game's object is. Vincent's recent posts on anyway have really gotten me thinking about this, and how I can tighten up some of my pitches at the start of sessions. These objects are related to CA but not congruent to it; a common thing people need to know but don't is whether you should play "to win" or not.

    It's okay for some part of these three things to be tacit, but it's generally best to be as explicit as possible.

  • edited August 2014
    [Withdrawn. I've said my thing.]
  • edited August 2014
    The first time I ever roleplayed, the GM wanted to make the fiction go how he wanted, without particular concern for the desires of the other players. Sometimes this was fine by me and the other players, but other times a good die roll didn't get us anything, and we felt robbed. The GM didn't want to be held accountable for robbing us, and was acting more on impulse than according to plans or principles anyway, so various excuses were made. This was the earliest sort of illusory play I encountered -- vagueness and lies about how the GM was GMing.

    It wasn't long, though, before we'd burned through our gameplay enjoyment of AD&D2 -- min-maxing, leveling up, getting magic items, etc. -- and our priorities grew to include a different kind of illusion. At some point, it became a major faux pas for the GM to ruin the sense of a "real" imagined world with nonsense or inconsistency. "Why would there be a door there? How do these people have enough money to pay us, but not enough to bribe the guards they want us to slay?" The illusion that our fictional environment existed in its own right rather than being made up (especially on the spot) for our benefit or detriment -- this was vital to play for various reasons.

    The reason we talked about was an aesthetic one. We were invested in the fiction, and wanted to immerse and lose ourselves within it, being transported to another world. The stupid and implausible would thus ruin our fun. Accordingly, whatever the GM was doing to create the fictional environment, we didn't want to see it. We just wanted the results to be flawless.

    The more we played this way, the more I realized that the end result was more important to me than complete GM secrecy. As long as I never had to accept something stupid into the fiction, I didn't mind if it took the GM a quick back-track or query to get it right. One of my friends vehemently disagreed. For any part of the world already determined and documented, he could handle a look-up, but he absolutely hated visible invention. Watching the GM think and decide what should be present galled him to no end.

    It wasn't until years later that I realized that a major issue for us was that of a fair challenge arena. We players generally, but my picky friend particularly, wanted to know the rules of play. Not just the mechanics in the book, but also the process binding fiction to choices to die rolls. We didn't just want a vivid and plausible fiction for the sake of immersion -- we also wanted to know our threats, resources, and positioning as concretely as possible.

    In retrospect, I am 100% certain this was the case, and I've confirmed this with several members of the group. At the time, however, our discussion focused solely on "The GM shouldn't make stuff up in front of the players because that ruins the experience of the fiction as real."

    I guess it was an illusion about what an illusion is and what it's good for.

    Many Illusions
    Whenever I hear other people discuss illusion in roleplay, I always wonder which part of it they're talking about.

    These "illusions" are all separate in my mind:

    1) Dodging accountability through obfuscation. The illusion that there's a secret good reason why some participants must just suck up unhappiness without explanation.

    2) A tradition of facilitating immersion, including a huge and changing variety of techniques, from mood lighting to speaking only in character to keeping the mechanics to the GM to prepping every inch of the fictional world before play. The illusion of being there.

    3) An attempt to provide a fictional environment consistent enough for the players to understand and skillfully work with. The illusion of in-fiction causality.

    4) A game world that will outlive the player characters, allowing players to etch their deeds in a permanent record with consequences rippling out into the future. The illusion of persistence.

    5) GM artistry behind the scenes. Similar to # 2, but the goal might be tight pacing, dramatic structure, climactic reveals, high emotion, rewarding exploration, thrills & chills, etc., rather than immersion only. Different amounts of this art production are kept open and secret by different GMs, but it's common for even the most "out in the open" GM to do some tasks discretely. In this case, the illusion is largely one of organic flow and seamlessness.

    The way I see it now is this:

    # 1 is simply bad play. If there is a good reason, there's always a way to have a discussion about it that sets everyone at ease. If there isn't a good reason, stop it.

    # 2 - # 4 are very much to my own taste. Most of my absolute best gaming experiences relied on them. But others claim similarly gripping experiences using completely transparent techniques, so I'm happy to admit it's just a matter of taste. I think it's important to note, though, that "similarly gripping" does not mean "identical". If you're curious to try my type of fun, I really do think you ought to try it my way (and vice versa).

    # 5 varies in degree from group to group and game to game, but it's a fundamental feature of playing pretend with other people that not every tweak to the fiction from one participant will be fully understood or vetted by every other participant. Roleplay is a messy thing, and we are all subtly stretching and renegotiating the fiction-creation process all the time. I'm in favor of flexibility as opposed to putting certain techniques in "good" or "bad" boxes. I'll play Burning Empires with as much transparency and Delve with as much illusion as I can muster, and I think anyone who nixes either possibility off the bat is missing out.
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