Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Illusionism and the Sandbox 3: Resolutions

Thanks for all the interesting replies to Part 1 and Part 2; I was out-of-pocket until late yesterday attending a work conference, so didn't get to reply.  Mulling over the comments helped me get my head around some of the nuances of the issues and come up with some guidelines I can use.

For background, I want to shift mediums from gaming to improvisational theater.  My wife is an improv actor, and she roped me into doing 4-5 improv courses a bunch of years ago.  You'd be surprised how many parallels there are between game mastering and improv (folks like Robin Laws have built a cottage industry on game master advice that incorporates good improv techniques into running games).

The two techniques I'm thinking of are incorporation and denial.  If you haven't seen improv theater, the idea is that two actors get an audience suggestion, step out on stage, and build a scene on the fly.  Who they are, where they are, evolves on stage as they start creating a scene whole cloth out of the blue.

One of the core ideas is that things established in the scene are true.  If one actor greets the other actor as a family member at the start of the scene, then that's true; contradicting the other actor on stage is called denial, and it's a bit jarring to the audience (and can derail the scene, since the actors are building it on the fly).  Incorporation is the idea that previously established information in the scene is true, and the actors should continue to work it into the world they're creating by continuing to reference it.

These concepts help me establish some guidelines on when Illusionism is harmless or damaging.  For me, I'd like to say Illusionism is always bad - just as the DM shouldn't fudge dice - but since I recognize that pragmatism sometimes has to win out over idealism, some guidelines will be useful.
Let's revisit the bandit example from Monday.  Trey helped highlight the nuances of the situation in the comments.  Think of how the utility and merits of Illusionism changes as these facts change:

  1. The party has 3 choices  of road to leave town, and there are no facts established previously that bandits live on one of the roads at the time the players make their decision.
  2. In the second set of facts, let's say the DM has previously established (through role play) that bandits often attack travelers on the west road.
  3. In the final set of facts, let's say the players previously said they wanted to take the west road to the mountains,  despite  knowledge of the bandits.  At the start of the next game, they make a spontaneous decision to go east to the big city instead.
In the first set of facts, the DM is free to plant the bandit encounter on any of the roads, because there are no expectations set.  I'll concede it's "no harm, no foul".

In the second example, if the DM moves the bandit encounter, it would seem to violate the established facts - in improv terms, it would be a denial.  Imagine the players rolling their eyes when they encounter bandits anyway, despite choosing a different course.  However, the DM can still 'save the day' by incorporating the established facts into the story; perhaps the players learn that the bandit leader himself was in town, creating the rumor of bandits on the west road, and the bandits have been on the east road all along.  As long as the players learn of these facts, the integrity of the situation is preserved.

In the last example, the players changing their minds, there's still a problem with Illusionism, but perhaps the DM can be excused because the players wasted his preparation time.  Regardless, to maintain the believability and credibility of the world, it would still be valuable to incorporate some mitigating facts - once again, the bandits are actually on the east road because a plant in the town gave the PC's misinformation.

In general, I wouldn't like the "solution" that there are two or three sets of bandits, one on each road; it's lazy, and doesn't incorporate the established facts.  It may be plausible, but the merits of presenting a world where the players can make meaningful decisions outweighs DM laziness.

Once I realized this approach, it solves the Strahd problem and the issue of crappy CRPG plot hooks, as well.  When a DM seeds a module plot hook into the sandbox, the amount of information provided will determine the current state of affairs at the adventure site.  If the players choose to ignore the plot hook, the DM is obligated to evolve the situation at the adventure site when time passes.

Going back to the Strahd example, here are two sets of facts:

  1. The player's get a plot hook to return a magic sword to Barovia (for money).  No information about an ancient evil awakening is provided.  They show up in Barovia 6 months later.
  2. The player's get a plot hook to return a magic sword to Barovia (for money), because an ancient evil is in the process of reawakening.  They show up in Barovia 6 months later.

In the first set of facts, the situation at the adventure site hasn't been established, and there isn't an Illusionism problem if the DM keeps the adventure site in the same state for 6 months.  It's like never telling the players which road has bandits.  In the second situation, the DM is obligated to incorporate the previous facts into the setting - the ancient evil is now wide awake, and waiting for them.

The words that come to mind to describe this approach to managing a game world are things like consistency, integrity, common sense.  Not helpful to phrase a guideline that says "Be consistent when running your game world."

So how about this for guidelines?  If someone can phrase them better, would love to hear it.

Player choices should be meaningful and have consequences.
Player choices are based on partial information.
The DM is obligated to administer the setting in a way that ensures player choice is meaningful, and in accordance with previously established facts.

Thanks for the good discussion fellas!


  1. I agree absolutely with all your points, and think those are sound guidelines.

    Where I tend to get dismissive of cries of "illusionism" is when it seems to suggest worlds must be entirely predetermined--which strikes me as dogmaticism without much utility (though of course, I support the right of others to play as they will). If a "fact" only exists in GM notes or in his/her head, and isn't a part of player decision making, then altering it on the fly is improv, in my view, as you suggest.

  2. Yep, I can get on side with this as well. I especially like the final guideline, and would factor it into my love of plot twists. There's nothing wrong with a surprise if it's been foreshadowed and could have been spotted. Of course, foreshadowing is a storytelling rather than gamesmastering technique, one which tends to fall down if the storyteller can't control what the characters spot, so we're on pretty dodgy ground as to whether a given foreshadow will still attach to anything when it resolves.

  3. There was a great discussion between trey and I in the comments on my blog post about your post. :-) I recommend you check it out.

    Personally, I'm uncomfortable with the 'established' bit. This may be a little personal, but I believe imaginary worlds, and worlds in video games, etc - all really exist in a sense similar to our own.

    When we're roll playing, I sort of feel like we're using various augury techniques (such as die rolls) to determine the state of these worlds - they aren't created so much as discovered. So it is less important whether the players *know* that strahd is building a zombi army, and more important whether he actually is, or not. Regardless of player knowledge, the things in your world exist in a certain specific place and time.

    Obviously, I'm playing a little devil's advocate here. I'm not actually crazy. ;-p When the information is unstated, it's clearly somewhat in a quantum possibility state, like a certain cat.

    There is less an issue with illusionism if the players lack knowledge. But in that situation, I'd have to ask myself, is this encounter being static true to the nature of this world I've uncovered? Or is it simply a thing I'm saying because it's convenient?

  4. -C, I agree with what you're saying - ideal, the setting elements are fixed in place, and their internal clocks are running.

    The quantum possibility state provides a bit of flexibility for those times when the DM would otherwise be creating a glitch in the matrix by altering continuity.

    BTW - I liked how you handled the colony issue in your game. May we all be as ruthless.

  5. Hey, C. We meet again. :)

    Not to get too philosophical, but isn't the question you pose true of any stage of world-building? How would one know at any point when they've achieved true communion, versus acting on their own will?

    An urge to a last minute change might be a sign from beyond.;)