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 "Schr√∂dinger's Adventure Module".   See you tomorrow.


  1. I've always find this line of reasoning odd, as it seems to attach moral judgements to something that is pretty clearly without a moral dimension--except perhaps in the vague sense that misleading someone is wrong.

    How exactly did the GM circumvent the PCs freewill in the example you gave? They did exactly what they wanted to do. The party made no "choice" to avoid an ambush--they didn't know there was an ambush! The player's had every bit of free agency they would've had had their been no ambush in either option.

    What the GM did (if he did anything to vilify) is he made the world malleable. Now, you might say that making the world conform to what he wants rather than laying it out and letting the chips fall where they may is a form of "cheating" (I would disagree, as the reason they're all their is to do stuff like get in ambushes, and if the GM had prepared a good encounter there is knowing they made the choice solace for not having adventure?) but I think that might be a debate to have, but robbing PCs of their freewill? nope.

    Illusionism removes player story control (whatever that's worth) but at least in the example you gave their free will is intact.

  2. I would tend to agree with you, Trey - Illusionism can certainly be a victimless 'crime' when artfully done, with the players none the wiser. I've certainly had to engage in such tactics from time to time - it's an aspiration to avoid Illusionism, but not always practical.

    Perhaps I should have made the binary example more explicit to illustrate the player's decision - one road is known to have bandits, the other road doesn't have bandits, the players choose the banditless road, and the DM springs bandits on them anyway.

    I'll be curious what you think of part 2... :)

  3. I think that's a more clearcut example of problematic behavior, yeah.

    Looking forward to part two. :)

  4. I think the moving the encounter to thwart the player choice is both cheating and robbing the players of their free will. That sort of stuff reminds me of the movie "The Truman Show" and I dislike it both as a player and as a GM.

    However, I agree that prep time is limited and if you've already got that encounter ready based on what the players were saying they were doing last time... then I'd suggest starting the game with the ambush. Narrate what happened since the last session up to the point of the ambush and then give the players back control of their characters again as the session begins.

    I'd greatly (!) prefer this to having things move around behind the scenes.

    Looking forward to tomorrow's post. :)

  5. I'm confused as to how the original example constitutes 'thwarting the player choice'.

    The players choose to head towards the city.
    They are ambushed by bandits on the way there.
    Once the ambush is overcome, they can continue heading towards the city, as was their choice.

    It looks like a classic random encounter to me, something that happens along the road to a place the players chose to go to.

    I also don't believe it's any sort of 'conclusion', forgone or not. The ambush isn't the destination. It's an event along the journey; disruption rather than equilibrium, if we're going to get all narratological about this.

    Beedo's second example, where one choice is flagged as bandit-free and the other is not, they choose the bandit-free one and get bandits anyway, that's a bit of a dick move, but still justifiable - who said the road was bandit-free? Were they a reliable source? Part of the bandit gang or just plain ignorant?

    Still not something I'd pull myself though. Telling players they were misinformed has enormous dramatic impact, such as should not be squandered by being wheeled out every time they blindside the GM by changing their minds, the sinners.