Come, we shall discuss Illusionism in a constructive light

edited August 2014 in Story Games
I'm usually not one for ground rules, but this thread is slightly different: there's been some heated argument lately about railroading and Illusionism between our stalwart stage magic minority (who persist in engaging this forum despite the general anti-Illusionist sentiment) and the noisy crowd who can't let an Illusionist argument stand. (I say this with love; it is the human instinct to strike at a differing viewpoint, but that can grow somewhat unfortunate when the discussions of these contentious issues devolve into endless cycles of Paul nitpicking Tod about what his words really mean, and then nothing gets done.)

Therefore, hey presto! A thread in which we shall discourse upon Illusionism and perhaps even railroading in a strictly positive light. I have some vague memories of maybe having seen something similar some years back, but that's what the cyclical Internet is all about: opportunities to air your experiences and opinions for new people.

In case it wasn't clear, this thread is off-limits to "I was bored when the Illusionist GM pre-empted all my choices" and "I felt betrayed when the Illusionist GM forced their preferred outcome". That's such an everyday discussion with us here, we've already had it, and it leaves the people who might have something positive to say about Illusionism stuck raving defensively against people who say nasty things about their chosen tools of roleplaying. There's a bunch of other active threads in which we can continue complaining about who said what about whose mother.

(Yes, I am aware of how amusingly PC-brigade this thread introduction is shaping out.)

I'll put down some thoughts myself soon, but I hope others will also say their piece about the constructive artistic possibilities of Illusionism; I frankly don't have very deep pockets in this regard myself, Illusionism is very much something I've moved away from in roleplaying. I've kept my hand in a bit with Participationism, though :D
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  • Eero,

    Excellent. A very clear thread start! I hope we might fare better here than we did elsewhere.

    One question: you mention Participationism in your last line as a counterpoint to Illusionism. Does that mean that we should stay away from discussing Participationism in this particular thread?

    I just made a lengthy post in Tod's thread on this topic. Should I move or copy it over here, or is it still too negative in tone? I feel it's relevant, but I don't want to step on your toes.
  • edited August 2014
    So, Illusionism. The last few times when we've argued about it with Contracycle (Gareth) about this, the morality of the matter has been a big, fat issue. The difficulty has apparently been in the fact that the discussion threads have mixed up personal social and creative issues with general ones. The productive magician's choice thread from half a year back is a good example of what I mean: reading it in hindsight, it's obvious that Gareth stuck to the question of whether the magician's choice can be moral from the get-go (because it's a favoured technique of his, and it seemed to him like we were shaping up for a general condemnation), while e.g. I was myself mostly discussing the consequences for using this technique in a game where it would be cheating. No wonder that we wrote at cross-purposes there; at some point the discussion veered into basically the same thing we saw this weekend in the railroading definition thread, with Gareth defending himself vigorously from people who characterize Illusionism (his favoured technical strategy in roleplaying, one he seems to identify with passionately) as a dishonest and exploitative thing. It's been a tragic misunderstanding, especially as we find time and again that when asking for clarification, it doesn't seem to me like any clear thinker actually thinks that Illusionism is condemnable per se. We often have many suspicions about it, and lots of experiences of GMs who have been Illusionistic against player consent, but those personal experiences and historical trends do not logically translate into a condemnation of the practice itself.

    So, let's assume a socially healthy Illusionist game project: there's a GM who is respected among their peers for being a talented storyteller, there is a joint decision to bestow this GM with the full discretionary powers over the experience of play, and so on. The Illusionism is strictly consensual: the players know that the game only has rules insofar as the GM decides to adhere to such, and they know that the GM "plays the world" and does that according to mysterious GMing precepts that might or might not originate in that big fat rulebook that sits on the table. The players know their own roles in the exercise, but those roles are not defined in terms of specific procedural tasks so much as by the audience relationship: the players are there to be entertained by a social and interactive show, put up by the maestro. There are likely plenty of player-facing rules, and the players even have narratives thrust upon them about the significance of those rules: the GM is building an interactive experience, and part of that is to let the players participate in the ephemeral level in e.g. task resolution.

    This game, as described, is Illusionistic, Auteuristic (easier to imagine Illusionism as such), fully consensual and insofar as I can see, perfectly credible as a bare chassis for some pretty exciting art-form. It's only barely in the envelope of roleplaying as I tend to understand it personally, but that's just my creative preferences speaking there: I'm well aware that some people de-emphasize spontaneous gamelike interactive creative contribution (basically the money-shot in my roleplaying), and emphasize reliable, high-quality narratives, respect for the effort and genius the GM puts into the game, and the other virtues that an Illusionist game is well positioned to achieve.

    Thinking about myself and the challenge of this Illusionist proposition, I admit to a slight failure of imagination regarding the core question: when and why would I structure a game like this intentionally? My personal answer involves horror roleplaying: in this genre over any others I'm most willing to do a little bit of prep work in advance as a GM, so as to come to the table armed with the most subtly horrifying phantasmagories. I love playing games like Dread, Don't Rest Your Head and Dead of Night, all of which are basically thrusts at the same core game of "yo GM, make up some scary shit and then lavish your delectable menu upon the poor players". This is something that I usually get to do as one-shot sessions a few times a year, as rare treats where I put just a little bit of literary work into my usual mix of sharp rules-use and quick improvised story play.

    Illusionist attitudes and techniques could conceivably work for me in this creative context; to have a motivation for Illusionism you have to care about the outcomes (knowing that I usually don't might be either obvious or a shock to the reader, but that's how it is - my usual rpg schemes strive towards result-agnosticism), and I could certainly see myself prepping with outcomes in mind. My usual horror rpg scenario is basically just a bunch of scary images and fantasy theology (names, images, relationships of the fell forces), but it would be easy enough to sort of backtrack into a '90s mindset and think in terms of setpiece encounters: wouldn't it be cool if I could make it so that these two PCs fall in love, get married and find out they're siblings in the climax of the game? Ordinarily I would merely jot down the theme of "incest" and leave the rest to shape up in play, but perhaps with an Illusionist chassis and technique tool-box I could get more ambitious about preplanning my horror story.

    Anyway, that's my take on a hypothetically relevant way for me to utilize Illusionism in a manner that I could find personally worthwhile. The question is: what do you accomplish by Illusionism, or what might you accomplish?
  • Excellent. A very clear thread start! I hope we might fare better here than we did elsewhere.

    One question: you mention Participationism in your last line as a counterpoint to Illusionism. Does that mean that we should stay away from discussing Participationism in this particular thread?

    I just made a lengthy post in Tod's thread on this topic. Should I move or copy it over here, or is it still too negative in tone? I feel it's relevant, but I don't want to step on your toes.
    My toes can take it. Not like I plan to play tinpot-moderator or anything anyway, the thread'll fall out the way we make it fall. I'm queasy enough about starting a custom to-order thread as is - not really my style.

    As for Participationism, sure, if it's relevant. The big prize is Illusionism, though - what advantage may you reap from using a set of ill-defined and arbitrary GM powers? Participationism is sort of easy in comparison :D

    I'll get back to my horror game musings later in a somewhat more concrete way. I can sort of vaguely see how I might get some real advantage out of going Illusionist in that context, but hey, I have to admit that I'm freaking awesome with the tools I usually use, so it takes a bit of thinking to discover where the real comparative advantages lay. The answer might be so simple as to straightforwardly observe that perhaps I could get the Call of Cthulhu adventures that I so very much admire to actually work, were I to run them in the fashion they were actually intended to be used :D
  • Ah, one more detail about my horror gaming vs. Illusionism theory that is less than clear in hindsight: the point of going Illusionist with a horror game would, of course, involve in part the resonance of player powerlessness against character powerlessness. In other words, the horror game might be the most natural fit for a type of GMing toolbox that has misleading and misinforming the players in a major role. Not that well-defined systems can't do abusive horror (MLwM, a classic example), but a mysterious, arbitrary GM just might do that approach one better.
  • Very well, I think that we are on the same page, then. Here's a quote of what I wrote in the other thread - it appears it fits this one perfectly.

    This thread has led me to think about railroading (in this case, meaning tight GM control over the storyline in a way which is not negotiated with the group).

    There are three reasons/rationales I can see for the use of that technique. I'm going to list them here, perhaps that will help the discussion along. I'd also be curious to hear if there are other rationales not covered by these three categories.

    1. It's seen as an 'easy way out'. This was probably reinforced (or even created?) by early module-writers who were trying to "tell stories", as can be seen in a lot of, e.g. early 90's published adventures. (It's entirely possible that many of these writers never played any games, as well - I've heard several such admissions on the internet, at least some of them might be true.)

    Explaining how to do something open-ended and interactive is simply more complex than writing a linear story. It's easy for a designer or module-writer (or a GM preparing an adventure) to assume a linear story and prepare that.

    Similarly for a GM in the middle of a game: it might be easier to just use the powers granted by the GM-seat to roll ahead at the players' expense than to try to create open-ended situations (or whatever else the game normally calls for). Less effort, less thinking involved - it's late and you're tired and the game has to wrap up in an hour.

    Simply enough: it's easier. (Or at least seen as being easier.)

    2. Playing a "railroaded" or linear story means that you know what will happen in advance.

    This means that a creative individual can use all kinds of storytelling tools to craft a certain experience. Props and tools, like maps and miniatures and handouts and NPC portraits. A careful setup for future events, like foreshadowing, thematic coherence, dramatic coincidences, and so forth. Simply taking the time to craft elements (e.g. NPCs, prophecies, locales, even game rules like "custom moves") in advance might be a huge boon to someone who isn't creative enough (or confident enough) to come up with those things "on the spot". Statting up a monster or opponent in a highly-complex system is another example (if you can't do it on the fly, you need some other solution).

    The idea here is that the GM gives herself extra time to prepare more carefully, and then makes sure that the preparation isn't wasted. This, in theory, allows a higher creative/artistic level to be reached in play.

    Maybe you can play out a game where you have a mask you can put on for each of the characters the PCs meet, for example. A lot of people would find that cool.

    Perhaps the best example I can think of is the "4 out of 7 cried" thread we had here on Story Games, as well as some of TomasHMV's accounts of his games. (I've never participated in a fun/successful/functional game like this myself, however. And I do note that all the examples I'm referring to were *consensual*, not hidden or disguised. May be a coincidence, of course.)

    3. The GM is, not to mince words, a *better roleplayer* than the players in the game. Her input is *better*.

    I suspect this is often a hidden feature/motivation behind railroading practices: the GM, simply, considers herself to have better ideas/better taste than the players, and therefore it is desirable to give precedence to her view and/or artistry over the other players.

    In this case the idea is that the GM takes charge of the gaming group and the fictional events as they unfold, so that the entire group may benefit from her brilliance. Giving precedence to the "best" player at the table gives the group leadership and allows the game to reach a higher artistic level than it would if everyone were contributing equally: the group is raised up to a higher level and their game is better this way than if they defaulted to the "lowest common denominator".

    This has a dark side - megalomaniac GMs, people who do this without consent, and so forth, which we've discussed to death - but it also has a positive or constructive side. I could see that being the case with an adult running a game for a group of young children, for example. Another example is someone teaching a game to a group for the first time, or any experienced gamer playing with a group of people who are beginners, shy, or unsure of themselves.

    The person with better skills or more experience improves the game by contributing to it more than the other people playing.

    This is already the case in most typical GMed RPGs - in most social contracts, the GM has more input into the game (choosing the system being played, to go back further to before the game even begins, for example) than the players do, and this is often seen as a positive. It can also be the case in collaborative games, like someone who "facilitates" a session of Fiasco.

    ---

    These three rationales all have different levels of potential problems, and at least I, having seen bad examples of all three, cringe a little when considering them. In every case, the tradeoff is individual choice and free will. (For me, this becomes a bit of a social/political/philosophical issue, where I'd rather preserve individual freedoms and teach players and GMs how to be better, rather than adopt a totalitarian or dictatorial hierarchy in a hobby which is primarily a social activity.)

    However, as the "4 out of 7 cried" thread demonstrates, there are definitely times when each of these techniques is just the thing, and a group or designer/writer who desires it or needs it. (For instance, for a short game with strangers, like D&D's 1-hr "Encounters" or other game demos, most of us have no complaints about using pre-gen characters. In a similar fashion, arguments could be made for limited fictional options as a player in such a game. We accept limited choice in a Choose Your Own Adventure book as an inherent limitation of the medium, as well.)
  • edited August 2014

    In my mind, and in my experience, none of these situations in any way require illusion or non-consent. I can't see any reason not to be above-board about what's happening and why, either in the game or module design, or in GM techniques. I always want to know what we're playing and how and why. If I'm at your gaming table, don't lie to me.

    (Perhaps this is why Tod's discourse on the topic of railroading occasionally worries me: "If it's done well, you'll never notice!" That's a scary thought to me, not an appealing one.)

    However, I know that some people actually *enjoy* the whole smoke-and-mirrors, magician's-trick school of roleplaying games. "Oh, my! That all turned out just as planned! How did he DO that?" "I don't want to know!"

    (If you need an example, consider the typical D&D combat where the monster has an unlimited number of hit points, and then is declared dead by the GM at the moment that seems most dramatic, or after the players "have fought hard enough". This is a perfect example of this kind of technique, and the type of thing that players occasionally say they don't want to know about.)

    EDIT - Here's another good example from a different thread:

    We may tend to think of these boundaries as being a defensive line for the GM's purposes ("plot" the typical jewel being protected). But some boundaries might be placed to prevent the PCs from getting into trouble they're not ready to handle yet. "Don't confront the Boss before you get the sword" kinda thing. Not because of pacing or plot really, but simply because the GM knows that if they face that guy now, they're dead.
    If you're one of those people, what's the appeal for you? What leads you to enjoy this kind of game, and what turns you off? What are the perks and what are the drawbacks?
    Eero, I think your hypothetical "horror" scenario points at some of these, except that you've developed so many non-Illusionist techniques over time that the first point no longer applies. (That is, the appeal of it being "easier" is no longer present for you; if anything, it sounds more challenging, perhaps, for being unfamiliar.)

    You also mention, in the final part of your post, something else I've also thought about:
    One thing I think about myself sometimes (but haven't seen in action) is using GM force - railroading - in order to reinforce a certain theme.

    For example, I can imagine some kind of dystopian future where machines control our fate (or a game which questions the existence of free will, or a game in which a certain outcome is fated, like an Oedipus Rex RPG). In that game, it might be effective to use railroading techniques to make the player feel some of the hopelessness of the character.

    I don't know if I'd enjoy such a game as anything more than a one-shot or one-time experience, but the thematic connection there is interesting (from a design perspective, at least).
    As another poster commented, Paranoia is one commercial example of such a game. (And supported by the rules text, which tells the GM to keep certain things mysterious from the players, punish them arbitrarily, and so forth.)

    All in all, we seem to have a similar perspective on this, as far as I can see.

    I'm looking forward to hearing some other people's thoughts on this!
  • The magician's choice thread link is off a bit.

    Here is one about supposedly Illusionist advice in Shaintar.

    I do think you can find people who directly make the judgments you suspect nobody is making in your OP. here, for example, it's compared to spitting into someone's drink (for years, actually!) and assault. It also contains a list of things that I said were good about "railroading", but could apply here too.

  • Yeah, Jason, but that's exactly where I would recommend a bit of fair reading. To me it's pretty obvious, as it was at the time of that thread, that these people are discussing situations where a GM has usurped extra-systemic powers in direct contradiction to what the players believed of them. That poison comment, for example, is directly followed by acknowledging that it's cool if it is what the players want, but they don't want to be ambushed like that themselves. So the consent is key, Illusionism vs. Participationism is only relevant in that Participationism is automatically consensual.

    The subtle point that Gareth belabored so effectively today in the other thread stands: Illusionism-with-consent is possible (even if not common in many of our experiences), and that is the point where I doubt that any sensible person would disagree. Those venomous sentiments are directed, even if imprecisely at times, towards non-consensual Illusionism, I think. If we truly have somebody here who has an issue of principle with the idea that somebody might choose to be bamboozled for entertainment, do please let me know, and then go kick some stage magicians - they clearly deserve it, the sick fucks.

    But anyway, be that as it may, let's not get into the who-said-what in this thread. Rather, you should tell us about how Illusionist techniques have improved your gaming, Jason. One striking example of an appealing gaming activity where Illusionism is necessary for the effect is all it takes to convince this hairy crowd that the ol' girl still has a place in the long-house next winter, next to the fire pit.
  • The problem is that any time I said 'railroading can do this really cool thing' (like, say, beginning or skipping to an in media res situation or forcefully scene framing a cool situation), everyone immediately started screaming NO IT CAN'T IT'S EVIL and that was the end of that.
  • If anyone does that in this thread, we'll show them the door.
  • Thanks for taking the Illusionism conversation out of the Rail Theory conversation. Maybe it will work.
    (An SG thread that adheres to the OP's stated topic and intention? I wish you good luck, Sir!)

  • Don't worry. If it goes off the tracks, we can consensually railroad it back on.
  • So here's a really vauge syllogism to sum up what I've read in a few people's comments:

    1. If illusionism is used consensually, it is fair
    2. Illusionism can be used consensually
    3. Therefore, illusionism can be used fairly

    So now the question is if fair and positive are equivalent for our purposes. If so, we've proven that some context exists where illusionism is positive – time to think up a few examples and call it a day. If not, then no conclusion can be drawn yet.

    Next we could to demonstrate that illusionism causes some sort of kantian detriment to roleplaying or makes it no longer "true" roleplaying. This would end the discussion because positive illusionism doesn't exist within the realm of roleplaying. If we can't prove that, then we should accept illusionism is at LEAST a neutral force.

    I'm saying this because proving it's a positive force or SOMETIMES a positive force seems too open ended and vulnerable to people's preferences.

    Anyway, just some thoughts.
  • edited August 2014
    Well, let me say this, then.

    I don't regard myself as a "story-teller". In fact I think the whole idea of "story" is largely a red herring for games; the term seems to carry some cachet that makes it worth aspiring to, but I'm not at all sure that this is the case. So the expectation, or assumption, that I have some "story" in mind, and that I'm determined to carry it out, by hook or by crook, and that the players exist purely as a passive audience to be bathed in the glow of my awsomeness, this, I think is totally off base. That really is not what I'm doing.

    There are some elements of "story" which I do make use of. Such as the truism that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is a useful thing for entirely practical purposes: there is a limit to how much prep can be done in advance, and how fast it can be done along side regular play. It is useful for me to structure something so that it has a beginning, and middle, and end, mainly so that it does actually have an end. I've run and played too many games that eventually just petered out, that tried to maintain continuous time too long, that lost all their punch and vigour. For this reason, aiming to have an end, something with what might be called a degree of closure to it, is a useful practical strategy. If I can take a plot, and wrap it up, and then go away and plan the next one, then IME the overall experience is much more satisfying for everyone involved.

    Now the obvious corollary there is that I'm actually not really invested in specific outcomes after all. It may be necessary for me to contrive some way for the villain to be able to get away in the course of act 1, but it's not like I'm necessareily commited to some specific grand finale setpiece. If the players manage to contribute stuff that would make for a better ending, or something of that ilk, I'm quite happy to roll with it. It's also far from impossible for me to set up some dilemma, and let the players answer it how they willl... although, I will expend effort into trying to prevent that dilemma being short-circuited or obviated such that it ceases to provide a sufficiently climactic climax.

    Story, therefore, is a tool which aids the structure of play, which can make the experience of play more satisfying. But is not the real point of the exercise, the real point is something Explorative. So frex, one game I ran was based on the question, what if the Celtic peoples of Europe had not been conquored by the Romans and the Germanic peoples, but had instead developed into a medieval-level society by themselves? What would that look like? That was the real purpose of the game. To the extent that I had a "story", which in this case was about how the warriors in a princes retinue deal with dynastic politics, that existed only in so much that it provided motivation to the characters, gave me a stable of NPC's to speak through, locations to go to, all of them various means and mechanisms to explore the underlying question for which purpose the setting had been created.

    So for me, "story-telling" is not the point of play at all; it's a device, it is itself a technique, which we use to bring things to the table, things like my setting exploration, or character portrayal, or understanding inter-personal relations in societies very different to our own. Those things are the real point of the exercise. The "story" exists only in order to have some momentum, some direction of travel, and some way of saying, OK we're finished now.
  • edited August 2014
    "In the movie world, we have to pretend that everybody's gonna like our work. But in the art world, if everybody likes it, it's terrible."
    - John Waters

  • Ported from: http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/19643/railroading-theory-a-functional-analysis#Item_181
    t's kind of like the difference between a very direct culture, where people say, "Hey, you're cute. Let's go see a show together on Monday, yeah?" - and a timid culture where things aren't stated explicitly: "Um, so you have Mondays off, you say? That must be nice. I wish I had Mondays off, too. I heard there's a pretty cool show on Mondays on Coronation Street. Funny, that reminds me: I actually will get a Monday off next week." (Expectant stare.)

    Everyone's on board with the process (which is essentially exactly the same), there's just a bit of social taboo around talking about it overtly.

    Does that sound about right? The two games we're describing are identical functionally - the players are just communicating less directly.

    ETA: Or is this actually different? A game where the players are being directed this way, and they *do not realize it*? In other words, do you believe the game is better this way (for players who enjoy it, of course) just because the players don't say that's how it works out loud, or is it actually the case that they don't even know it's going on at all?

    I find the latter has slightly disturbing implications (partially because it's very hard to prove in any way that someone enjoys something more than another thing when they can't tell the difference), but if you have seen some evidence that people enjoy that more, I'll take your word for it! (Although I hope you will be able to explain it or at least describe it in some detail.)
    Descibing it as taboo seems like a negative thing. I'm saying that it's positive, that it is the draw. So it's not like timidity at all, because I can think of no scenario where that sort of timidity is actively pursued. Nor is it that they are communicating less directly, it is that that sort of direct communication is undesirable, contrary to their interests.

    As for whether they know it's going on at all, that depends whether you mean at the SC level or the play level. at the SC level, yes of course they should, otherwise they can't agree to it. At the play level, ideally they would not know.

    This is the distinction between the curtain being up or down. When it's up, in participationism, the GM might say something like, so look, I forgot about Bob's Kill Nasty Things ability, this Big Bad needs a few more HP, I'm giving it 10, and everyone is OK with that. With the curtain down, the GM does this unilaterally, without letting anyone know, because they specifically do not want to know. If it were done openly, it would force them to see the sticks and wires, which is what they are trying to avoid.

    The consent to do that is given in principle, beforehand, and not at the moment of play, when it would intrude into the fiction.

    And if you're thinking that this might make it hard to know whether you're doing it right, yes it can. I'm quite happy to discuss these things after the fact, happy to confess to the fact that I had forgotten Bob's Kill Nasty Things and had to intervene on the fly, precisely so I can get feedback and judge whether this was the right decision or not. And I have been congratulated both for the fact that the intervention succceeded, and that the players did not realise it was happening.
  • edited August 2014
    One night about a month ago I had expected a party of 3 (me being 4) for Fiasco, but it turned out to be a party of 5 (me being 6), so I needed something else, something simple and no-prep. I grabbed Lady Blackbird and printed out the sheets.

    Some of these people were regular Players in my group, and they're getting the hang of various playstyles, from heavily-GMd to totally freeform. LB is somewhere in the middle. A couple of these people had very little experience but knew how traditional D&D worked. And these 2 people weren't going to be around next week. I wanted to give them something cool.

    So the party gets out of the cell, they're moving through the ship, they're taking out the guards, but there's a lackluster feeling, they're not adding much detail, perhaps the two groups felt slightly uncomfortable in front of each other. Whatever it was, I didn't want it to drag the game down. So, as they turned a corner near where they've learned the engines will be, I stood up and began pointing out things: the massive engines pumping out steam, the pipes and pistons everywhere, and a huge sunken level full of tons of coal. And in an extemperaneous attempt to add more color, I suddenly found myself saying: "There's a catwalk without rails extending way out over the coal pits, it's about ten feet wide and it ends in a large circular platform. On that platform is a cage. And in that cage... is a young adult black dragon."

    I don't know why I said dragon. It just sounded cool. Steampunk plus dragons. So I began describing it. The Players were fascinated. This dragon piqued everyone's curiosity and raised the energy of the whole room, They decided they had to free the dragon. Everybody has creative ideas all the sudden! They approach it and Snargle begins speaking to it, unlocking the cage while the rest of the group holds off some more approaching guards. A big firefight ensues (they've taken the weapons off the earlier guards they killed, of course). And then the dragon comes out of its cage, spreading its big wings and roaring, letting out a huge puff of steam. There are acrobatics! There's Lord Blackbird (gender switch) shooting lightning bolts and suddenly learning to fly! There's Snargle diving in front of a guard and getting hurt, so biting the guard's leg, everyone has moved, but another guard turns his weapon at the prostrate goblin when I remembered the dragon hasn't moved and so suddenly CRUNCH! - the dragon bites the guy's head off!

    The party makes short work of the remaining guards and continues on their way to the bay holding their vessel, The Owl. Only now they don't have to solve the problem of stealing and carrying coal... because Lord B does some quick calculations and - whaddya know? - the volume of steam this dragon can put out will be just enough to get them to Nightport, which happens to be (thanks to the word "secrets" in the brief planetary description) - the dragon's home.

    When the game was over everybody kept talking about the dragon. I said "You know, that dragon was totally made up on the spot." They were flabbergasted. They thought it was in the game. In fact they thought saving it was part of the "plot" - and they thought that was cool. Except there is no plot, I reminded them. There's only like, 2 pages of rules. "But what about the steam being exactly enough to power the ship?" LB's Player asked. "That was just you doing a successful math roll and having a good idea," I answered. He smiled quizzically. "Huh," he said.

    At that moment I realized I had deflated his bubble. You know and I know that I had no plan for the dragon at all - it was simply color when I created it. And I certainly never thought of using the dragon to power The Owl. That was his idea. But I got the distinct impression that he really wanted it to be a puzzle that he had solved correctly, and I let him down by revealing that it was just me being a generous collaborator. I should have simply smiled enigmatically, like a good illusionist.

  • edited August 2014
    Thanks, Gareth. That's an excellent and very clear answer to my question! I appreciate it.

    There's an agreement to certain things happening, but *no one wants to know*, at least during the act.

    Do you enjoy this kind of play as a player, as well? If so, what's the draw for you, where's the appeal?
  • Man, ambushed by Jason in a thread where I can't respond cuz we're being all positive. <=)

    Gareth, for what it's worth, your definition of Illusionism with <i>a priori consent (vs. in situ consent) is what I called Participationism. The definitions I always use, right or wrong, are Illusionism=no-consent, Participationism=with-consent. Maybe that clears up my feelings in other threads.

    Now for this thread...

    My wife Steph and I co-GMed a house-rules tabletop for a couple years. It was very popular, with 10-15 different players over its lifetime and a solid group of 5-7 players every week. Because the rules were little more than "here's a character sheet and some dice/conflict rules," we did a lot of stuff by GM fiat, and that made it easy to do illusionist tricks. I was in my middle years between Old School D&D gaming and all this newfangled storygaming. I was just starting to dislike hard-railroading techniques, but Steph loved them. Steph wasn't then, but she is now a professional fiction author with over a dozen books to her name, several of which have won peer awards and one of which hit the B&N Bestseller's list. She's a good storyteller. She had those players at the table eating out of her hand.

    We often would strategize between games what outcomes we wanted from the game and how to manipulate players' emotions and beliefs to get them to think that the path they were taking was their own, when it was our path all along. We wanted a traditional story arc and we got it. When people went off the rails, we set the dice difficulties higher or made them roll several times. Davey was the typical guy who was always running off on "adventures" that had nothing to do with the story line that we (GMs)--or even the rest of the players--were vaguely interested in pursuing. In this sense, there was strong agreement that the story was "on rails," or at least that certain stuff was core story and other stuff didn't have anything to do with existing plotlines they were pursuing. I guess we let him try to go on these adventures half the time because there was this sense of "the setting's world is real and we can't constrain you!" while constraining them all the time with hidden GM Force. Sometimes, though, Davey had weird, wild success against all odds and did real heroic crazy things that we all reveled in.

    The plot was so much on rails that there was even a rewind-and-redo moment where they had messed up so bad, that it turned out they all had been in the Dream World of the goddess of sleep, and so they had a chance to wake up and do it right this time, with all the weird deja vu that suggests. We manufactured the Dream World scenario very early on, though, to be fair, starting their first or second session with an encounter with the goddess in a misty haze one morning. When they awoke from a 6-month-RL dream, they didn't throw things at us, but rather there was a lot of 'ohhhhhh! of course!' because we'd set it up. But it was hidden GM Force in a lot of ways.

    We kept characters alive a lot. The combat rules were shaky and we'd often handwave things to keep them alive, or tweak enemies on the fly to have them fall just before the PCs died. How dramatic! The players might have suspected we were cheating, but they didn't seem to care. The story we were telling (okay, that Steph was telling) was amazing. Players cried real tears at a couple times. Lots of drama and emotion.

  • Great example, Adam!

    Also, more abstract thought. If elements of game system are discovered to be "broken", or a pre planned module is discovered to not suit the party's taste, is it wicked to use illusionism to "fix" the situation?
  • edited August 2014
    I wont use "illusionism" because it's a term coined by people a) not liking this style b) an attempt to describe dysfunctional play, when it's really just pointing at bad game mastering and saying this goes for the whole style of play, in order to c) make their own playstyle look better. It's a fucked up phrase, and people should realize that it should be buried. I think "illusionism" says more about the people using that word than anything about the game style. It's like me trying to describe what Scientology is. I can tell you, describing it without using the word "nuts" is going to be hard. So why are we using a term coined by those who will find it as hard to be objective as me with Scientology?

    I've been hesitant in writing the thing below, because I don't think it will give anything. It wont change anything in the previous paragraph. People will still talk about something else instead of how to use this playstyle in a good way. It's the reason why I didn't bother with Paul_T's thread. It's one of those "Yeah, yeah, I can listen in attempt of acceptance but I wont believe it" kind of gestures. Should I really throw away an hour or two of my life to write this? Because the people using sequential stories, like Vi åker Jeep, already knows this, and the rest wont listen. What AsIf got in his thread was a bunch of loudmouths that couldn't listen to what he wrote (which is hilarious in an ironic way. People opposed sequential stories in that thread, claiming that the game master should listen to what the players are doing, aren't being able themselves to take in what others are saying.)

    ---

    I use sequential stories when I want to a) show a story, b) show a setting, or (both A and B) c) show a history. The players are there to get a sensation out of it. They can also be there to focus on character personification. I'm mostly for ballistic play, meaning that the players can do whatever they want but some results wont change.

    Every adventure I wrote when I was younger was based around ballistic play. It was the consensus of our group so I never thought of bringing it up, because it was the only playstyle we knew. Nowadays, our range of playstyles are different, so I'm keen on telling my group (or the one I had, at least) if it was going to be sequantial, a fish tank or collaborative storytelling. Funny thing though, I don't do this at conventions. I feel it's still a consensus that those scenarios are sequential in some way. Hey, you got a four or six hour spot to fill and sequential stories are easier to handle when it comes to time. You just drag out scenes or remove some of them in order to end at the right time.

    Anything sequential play is great when it comes to showing something, but it takes players to want the sensation. If a player shows up expecting collaborative storytelling, then you got a dysfunctional play. So never blame the playstyle, it's the collision of playstyles that is wrong.

    [edit] changed "linear" to "sequential".
  • If elements of game system are discovered to be "broken", or a pre planned module is discovered to not suit the party's taste, is it wicked to use illusionism to "fix" the situation?
    Dustin, it’s hard to discuss illusionism in a positive light while pointing out that a particular use of it is wicked. So while noting that my reply is off-topic to this thread, I would rather try fix the situation openly. YMMV.
  • It's the reason why I didn't bother with Paul_T's thread. It's one of those "Yeah, yeah, I can listen in attempt of acceptance but I wont believe it" kind of gestures. Should I really throw away an hour or two of my life to write this?
    This seems a bit harsh, Rickard. Do you see any evidence in that thread of people shooting down linear practices in play, and not being willing to listen?

    I think it's worthwhile to say what you have to say, and let the readers judge for themselves.

    In any case, I really enjoyed your post in this thread, it's very much worth thinking about, and I'll be doing that for the next few days. Thank you! I am glad you posted, even if you were hesitant.

    Do you see any advantages to this "linear" playstyle that aren't covered by my three categories (in the quoted text, above)? If so, what are they, and what do they look like?



  • People opposed linear stories in that thread
    I’ll just clarify again that this wasn’t what I was trying to do (but my own current disinterest in gaming linear stories shone through, of course), I was trying to discuss problems with social contract.

    I get that I can be clumsy and abrasive (and I’m working on that) but I did read the posts.
    If a player shows up expecting collaborative storytelling, then you got a dysfunctional play.
    This.
  • This seems a bit harsh, Rickard. Do you see any evidence in that thread of people shooting down linear practices in play, and not being willing to listen?
    I have to say, Paul, that I also read “Let’s hear from players who have enjoyed this” as “Let’s hear from players who have enjoyed this and it will be crickets because they haven’t hahaha”. Which probably says more about me than about you. :/
  • edited August 2014
    Amen, brother @Rickard. I think the funniest thing about the hysteria in my thread is that I'm neither advocating nor denouncing any playstyles over there. I just refuse to throw any babies out with the bathwater, so I insist on examining charged concepts and pejorative terms to see for myself what's going on - which apparently is too much for some people to bear. Too much to ignore, even.

  • Tod,

    This is a very lovely and positive thread. So please take this question in a positive light! I am just trying to understand your point of view. This is not a criticism, but a question asked from a curious person who wishes to learn more and believes that there's no such thing as a stupid question (not if your goal is to increase your understanding, anyway).

    OK! Your Lady Blackbird dragon-rescue adventure:

    At that moment I realized I had deflated his bubble. You know and I know that I had no plan for the dragon at all - it was simply color when I created it. And I certainly never thought of using the dragon to power The Owl. That was his idea. But I got the distinct impression that he really wanted it to be a puzzle that he had solved correctly, and I let him down by revealing that it was just me being a generous collaborator. I should have simply smiled enigmatically, like a good illusionist.
    Here's the part I wonder about when I read this: isn't this illusionist practice you're saying you should have followed somewhat like faking one's orgasms in bed?

    What I mean is: one person expects a certain outcome, but that's not what happens. To make them feel good, the other person lets them believe that, yes, that's exactly what happened.

    In a sexual relationship, this is problematic, because now the artifice must be continuously maintained or the whole relationship comes crashing down ("I've been faking it with you for the last seven years!"*). The stakes (the related disappointment) climb higher and higher each time the behaviour is repeated. In addition, whatever attitudes and techniques were being used to achieve this effect (but are in fact the wrong techniques) in the player's eyes are effectively being reinforced, so you're even *less* likely to achieve the desired cool gaming moment/orgasm in the future. You're rewarding the wrong stimulus, in other words, and then telling someone it worked, so they'll just keep doing it.

    Doesn't this just force you to build higher and higher walls of deception, once you've committed to this path, with the constant threat of someone figuring it out and ruining the game experience for good?

    And this is all assuming the same play group with the same GM. The problems potentially grow further if we think of migrating to different partners/a new group/a different GM.

    Or does this analogy not apply? If so, why not? Where does the difference lie?


    *: Not autobiographical, I swear!
  • This seems a bit harsh, Rickard. Do you see any evidence in that thread of people shooting down linear practices in play, and not being willing to listen?
    I have to say, Paul, that I also read “Let’s hear from players who have enjoyed this” as “Let’s hear from players who have enjoyed this and it will be crickets because they haven’t hahaha”. Which probably says more about me than about you. :/
    I'd like to hope that I didn't come across that way. I even spent about 40 minutes looking for old threads which referenced tightly GM-controlled or Illusionist (or whatever term you like) accounts in a positive light, and linked them, to get the ball rolling. I certainly wouldn't have done that if I was hoping to wave my hands at the end and laugh at the lack of replies (although I was disappointed by the lack of actual play accounts - however, I do understand Rickard's reluctance to post, given all the discussions we've been having lately, and how heated some of them get).

  • No, I need to be absolutely clear that I don’t really believe that you had such a plan. The thread seems genuine.
    I’m just saying that if someone got that (mistaken) impression, they weren’t the only one.
  • edited August 2014
    You are likening a roleplaying group relationship to a sexual relationship. That's stretching pretty far, Paul. /facepalm.

    I run games in every conceivable style, and have utilized RPG design theory in mediums and formats you've never even considered. Some involve didactic techniques. Some don't. It's all just different types of Art. Some people get worked up over ridiculous things. But if it's auspicious for you, the relationship I have with my wife is one that appreciates subtlety and leaves room for mystery. All it takes is trust. YMMV.

  • edited August 2014
    It will seem like I'm turning on the waterworks, and being defensive isn't the best way to explain anything. I'm using fish tanks, railroads, and collaborative storytelling. Each one got their own advantages, and I'm even mixing them up in the same session. Feng Shui (railroad) and InSpectres (collaborative storytelling) will sound the same when I'm playing them. I get sad when one of my children is getting bullied. I don't even recognize the child through all the criticism. Sure, the child listens to aggressive music and the art she draws is rather dark but it's her way of expressing herself.

    I love all my children equally. So everybody, listen up. Please stop bullying my baby! Even if your intention is to point out the flaws, it's not helping at all. Who are you to judge about how another human being should express herself? Look instead of all the positive things that she brings and take advantage of that. That's what this thread is about.

    That's what my next post will be about.
  • For me it was less about playstyle vs playstyles and more about how troublesome it is to navigate the social contract. You seem to have a knack to do that well with your group, Rickard — and I love that Matiné has such an explicit and consistent CA.
  • Social contract is the easiest fuckin thing in the world. People negotiate social contracts every day.
    Usually without even noticing they're doing it, and for higher stakes than four hours of story time.

  • Social contract is the easiest fuckin thing in the world.
    Not for me.
  • Social contract is NOT easy because most people don't have a shared vocabulary to even describe and negotiate their social contract. This is the case not just in gaming. Most people just get a diffuse, uncomfortable feeling when it is violated; not much of a clue as to how to resolve the issue. Plus, it takes courage to even bring it up.
  • There's nothing to bring up if they know what the game is in the first place.

    I'm gonna take @2097's answer at face value. Sandra, I figure this may be one reason for your values re playstyle, and perhaps even for your occasional bursts of anger at trad GMs. If social contract is difficult for you, maybe you're thinking too hard about it. But this thread is only about games where a potential for Illusionism exists; therefore single-GMd games. When you are the GM, you are the offerer of the contract. It's that simple. You wrote the contract yourself. You are under no obligation to use a contract written by anyone else. You simply need to make your terms clear, and take the authority to be in charge of the group's experience. If they hate it they only lost a few hours and they can never come back if that's what they want.

    [The word "authority" is a red flag for someone here, guaranteed. Just remember the kind of game we are talking about in this thread. There are times when you will have to demonstrate it, and at those times you must be worthy of it - from their standpoint.]

    Any game with even a possibility of "Illusionism" is a game that requires Facilitation. We can call it all different things, but Group Facilitation is what it really is. Group Facilitation is a natural talent for some, but it's also a skill that almost anyone can learn, practice, and get good at. You can read books on it. You can take classes. Basically, you want to show the group that there's a good reason for giving you control right now. There are many ways to convince people to do that (rhetoric, power, money, pity, etc), but since this is a Leisure Activity after all, the easiest approach is to make their experience (of you in control) be Entertaining I.e., Fun. If you're of an Artistic bent, that's another option, depending on audience.

    You take an elevated position in the group through (a) being a good host and (b) your performance (in both senses of the word), for instance: You take the floor prior to the session, you get everyone's attention, and you take the authority they are granting you. It's just like running any other kind of meeting. You just take it. Then you back it up.

    Introduce yourself and say what your function is tonight. While you are performing, you are your friendliest, your most confident, your most charismatic, your most entertaining, your most clever (and depending on the game, your most cryptic & mysterious). Make sure they're all following you, and then simply tell them what they're gonna do tonight. "Okay, tonight we're playing blah-blah. This is a game where you blah-blah and I blah-blah. But what's different about this game is blah-blah." If there's any extreme content or bleedy things about the game, explain those things and make sure everybody's still onboard (Lines and Veils). Put down an X card and explain that too if you want. "So that's how this game works. Everybody ready to give it a shot? Ok, here we go!"

    Like a teacher in a classroom, a speaker at a podium or a guide on a hike, you take the authority, you demonstrate competence, you instill Trust (which may be personal, artistic, or simply a willingness to go along), you explain the exercise, and you guide the exercise. This isn't a negotiation at all. It's a straightforward demonstration of your offer, which is either accepted or not. Just remember: If it sucks, it's your fault. So don't suck.

  • Sandra, I figure this may be one reason for your values re playstyle, and perhaps even for your occasional bursts of anger at trad GMs.
    I’m more angry at the game designers than the GMs, but yes. You’ve nailed it.
    That’s why when I was running improvising I was always clear to the players that that’s what I was doing.
    That’s why when I ran a railroaded module I was also clear to the players: telling them “OK, you go to this part of town” instead of tricking them to go to that part of town.

    And this is why I took extra offense at the insanity metaphor — I’m one crazy lady and I think the social stuff is super difficult and I am very embarrassed about that and I don’t like to talk openly about it.
    You simply need to make your terms clear
    Yes, this part is important. If you are doing this than there is no problem.

    Remember this comment:
    I should have simply smiled enigmatically, like a good illusionist.
    If you would’ve turned that into reality, I would argue that the terms wouldn’t have been made clear.
    At that moment I realized I had deflated his bubble.
    This — and I realize that we all make mistakes and that this stuff is hard — is to me a sign that terms haven’t been made clear.
  • They knew this was a game where we all make shit up. But they also knew some stuff is written in the rules. Not having read the rules, they thought the dragon was one of those pre-written things. That led them to believe that releasing it and using it to power the ship it was a deliberate "puzzle", even though they had been told there's no plot beforehand.

    I think (and I can ask when I see him next), the bubble didn't burst because he realized that I made something up. He knew I was doing that all evening. The bubble burst because he thought he had solved a literal puzzle, and I revealed that he actually hadn't. I took away his feeling smart, basically.
  • Good points. I guess I was reading too much into it.
  • The Lady Blackbird example is *fascinating*. To me it really highlights that there are genuine, functional differences between people who GM or Facilitate a lot and those who don't. Anyone with any serious GMing experience would get that you were collaborating.
  • The Lady Blackbird example is *fascinating*. To me it really highlights that there are genuine, functional differences between people who GM or Facilitate a lot and those who don't. Anyone with any serious GMing experience would get that you were collaborating.
    90-9-1 rule
    90% of people are consumers of content (players only)
    9% are collaborators (players who get both the game the GM is playing and the players are playing, they can be players and GM effectively)
    1% are creators who really enjoy GMING and game design.

    The point is that most people have a hard time really understanding this.
  • Every RPG GMing section should start with this rule:

    Start by asking the players if they prefer:
    -A well told linear story, where their agency will be taken away at certain points to keep things happening and there's some or a lot of stuff pre-designed in advance (puzzles to solve and premises of key events at least) - Check subsection X of this book
    -A sandbox where they will be the ones making things happen and the GM will improvise scenarios and puzzles leaving the solution of them to the players. - Check subsection Y of this book
    -Not knowing which one is going on and never ask about it. - Check both subsections of this book

    Or at least being straight honest from the cover that this system is beter suited for one particular playstyle. And I'm having a déja-vu here, I think I suggested this same thing ages ago, maybe on the Forge even, and everybody shooed-me away, ignored me and/or told me something like "Don't play with people you can't stand/don't like"

    Also, there should be more rules about the social contract. Nobody talks about it anywhere, except in some best practices advice. It isn't "a problem some minorities have", "something you care too much about", it's a real issue. But further than that, I believe it's an unttaped resource. The evidence is all around this thread: especify some rules over the group's social contract and you have a totally different game experience using the same system, with the same group.

    I actually started the Techniques thread for this reason, and though I haven't added too much to it lately, I'm trying to process all this fuzz about railroading, illusionism and participationism into something everyone could use on a table.
  • Or at least being straight honest from the cover that this system is beter suited for one particular playstyle. And I'm having a déja-vu here, I think I suggested this same thing ages ago, maybe on the Forge even, and everybody shooed-me away, ignored me and/or told me something like "Don't play with people you can't stand/don't like"

    Also, there should be more rules about the social contract. Nobody talks about it anywhere, except in some best practices advice. It isn't "a problem some minorities have", "something you care too much about", it's a real issue. But further than that, I believe it's an unttaped resource. The evidence is all around this thread: especify some rules over the group's social contract and you have a totally different game experience using the same system, with the same group.
    All this made me very interested in what you will produce in the future. I'm going in similar thought as you.
  • The bubble burst because he thought he had solved a literal puzzle, and I revealed that he actually hadn't. I took away his feeling smart, basically.
    Well, he figured out that all the decisions he made for an evening /didn't matter at all/, at least not in the way he thought they did. This isn't about feeling smart or not. He knows he's smart. This is like he took a test and you gave him an A without reading his answers, and he's, like, "Why the heck did I take four hours to lovingly craft great answers for this test if you were just gonna give me an A no matter what I did?" It's annoying at best.

  • 90-9-1 rule
    90% of people are consumers of content (players only)
    9% are collaborators (players who get both the game the GM is playing and the players are playing, they can be players and GM effectively)
    1% are creators who really enjoy GMING and game design.
    Cite needed? I'm not sure this is true in the gaming community. It might be true in Internet / social media, where it was originally applied, but probably not even there.
  • Kevin Crawfords games do this, WarriorMonk. I agree, it’s what I’ve been really missing.
    Rickard, I think your own games do this well, at least Matiné.
  • Well, he figured out that all the decisions he made for an evening /didn't matter at all/, at least not in the way he thought they did. This isn't about feeling smart or not. He knows he's smart. This is like he took a test and you gave him an A without reading his answers, and he's, like, "Why the heck did I take four hours to lovingly craft great answers for this test if you were just gonna give me an A no matter what I did?" It's annoying at best.
    Adam, OTOH Lady Blackbird is Lady Blackbird. What’s there is what’s there, kind of.
    While some DMs could prep and turn it into something else, it seems to me to be designed to just be winged.
    So I think the game sets its expectations just fine — it’s not one of the many self-contradictory games I’ve directed my ire towards — and then the question just is if that player had understood those expectations (and forgotten about them) or not.
  • For the record, I'm enjoying this thread, even though I am frankly mystified as to why this topic would get people angry. I mean, I can see the dichotomy, and why people would have preferences, but not why it would turn into a flame war. (I guess I'm just not far enough down this rabbit hole; it's like a milder form of me looking into a guitarist forum and finding heated arguments about Drop-D tuning.)

    I can see the potential for players during an actual session, who have a preferred play style, to be unhappy if the GM is running the game using a contrasting play style without their being aware of it. But that seems to be just a question of a contract — not even a social contract, just a game-style one — which can be smoothed over by getting everyone into agreement before the game starts.

    Anyway, I'm learning from this, so I hope this topic doesn't get shut down.
  • Hmm, here's the thing I think as someone who GMs a lot, which I wouldn't expect someone who doesn't to realize:

    Let's say the Dragon was in the module, and using it to power the ship is either (a) a possible solution or (b) the only possible solution.

    Now, if it's (a), that's fine, I guess, but then the module writers would need to come up with several other possible solutions, which would be both a high workload proposition for them and still risk diluting the player's sense of satisfaction in the situation described. If it's (b), though, think about what that implies—that the GM *has* to place the dragon in the players' path, even if that's implausible, and that if they don't think on their own of using it in the prescribed way, he has to somehow get them to do it, or the adventure stalls.

    @snej: In theory, different people having different preferences should be no big deal. Even if other people like games I find downright unpleasant, I have no reason to object to them playing in that way. However, since so much of this particular topic involves the experiences of people who ended up in one type of game when they thought it was another, then the issue of honesty comes in. That's why emotions run so high.
  • Rickard, I think your own games do this well, at least Matiné.
    You're right, but I was a fool to put that in an advice section of each chapter. The advices in Matiné are the real system. I learned from the feedback I got that people don't read game master advice, they read the game mechanics. So my next step is dressing up advice in game mechanics. Mutiné (my Mutant mod) was one step into that direction and This Is Pulp is a purification of it. I'm looking forward to see how the game text will be received.
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