Monday, March 7, 2011

Illusionism and the Sandbox - Part 1

Readers know that my current campaign style uses something I call "the sandbox of modules" - or modular sandbox.  I've populated my world with various campaign hooks and module site locations, and through a combination of home brew adventures, random encounters, and fully developed module sites, the campaign comes to life.

One interesting issue I have to grapple with is the concept of "Illusionism".  Here's a definition from the RPG theorists that's as good as any:

Illusionism:  A term for styles where the GM has tight control over the storyline, by a variety of means, and the players do not recognize this control.

An example is worth a thousand words.  Let's say you've prepared an adventure that kicks off after the players get ambushed by some bandits.  You expect the party to follow the bandits back to their camp and find the entrance to the dungeon in the bandit cave.  You place the bandit ambush on the west road out of town, where everyone knows some bandits lurk.

Here's the problem - there are three roads out of town, and although the party indicated last week they were probably heading west, this week, they decide to head towards the big city.  They take the east road instead.  Dingle!

That's where the Illusionist DM only gives the party the illusion of free will.  By golly, he built a bandit ambush to spring on the party, and one way or another, it's going to happen regardless of what they actually *wanted* to do.  He just moves the bandit ambush and cave lair to the east road, attacks the party as planned, and goes on with his story.

This is railroading.  The free agency of the players has been circumvented so the GM can drive the action to a foregone conclusion.  One can argue this is "socially acceptable" railroading if the players don't realize they're actually being manipulated by the DM; I disagree.

I strive, as much as reasonable, to give the players access to enough information to make an informed decision, and then abide by their plan without the Illusionism.  What's the point of running a sandbox if the DM is going to be a sneaky railroading puppet master?  It's an aspiration goal, because there is a finite amount of prep time.  Others will argue that Illusionism is practical, and certainly the lesser evil when compared to explicit or overt railroading.

Okay - all this background on Illusionism lays the framework for tomorrow's post; this introduction to Illusionism is probably old ground for most of you.  There's actually a related issue I'm most interested in discussing.  I'm calling it "Schrödinger's Adventure Module".   See you tomorrow.