"Illusionism" and "GM force" in RPGing

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't want to go too far down this rabbithole - but if player input hasn't occurred yet then it can't be nullified. Nor can it be modified. It can be instigated.
Before it occurs it can also be directed, either partially or completely, by both the specific content introduced by the GM and the (perhaps metagame) manner in which this is done; and that's where part of the issue lies.

This is what I've been focusing on ... around the DL dragon armies case - there are some different analyses going on, and probably more posts I haven't read yet, but my take is that this is not a modification or nullification of player input but nevertheless is force because it guides/manipulates towards an outcome.
I've never run DL-1 but a similar module-mandated use of Force might be the transition in the Slavers series from A-3 to A-4: the party have to be captured come what may. (great series but that one bit of it that never felt right somehow)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
That seems likely to be a cause of dysfunctional play. For instance, if the game is fairly typical D&D and one player thinks a TPK is a loss while another doesn't, I don't see how friction will be avoided for very long.
We just deal with it.

We all, I think, would generally see a TPK as a loss*; but beneath that some see significant wealth loss or item destruction as far more of a "loss condition" than others, while others see level drain as perhaps the greatest "loss condition" and still others see PC death as being that.

All it means is that I have to make sure all three happen on a regular basis, so nobody feels left out. :)

* - in theory; I've only ever had one and - unrelated - none of the players involved are still active in our games.
 
@Ovinomancer

Here is a good example I just thought of where I feel comfortable calling it Force when a GM creates metaplot/backstory that subordinates a player’s authority over their thematic conception of their PC/interests.

4e has 3 ways of earning xp:

  • Passing or failing Skill Challenges (a story loss/setback or a story win...it doesn't matter).
  • Defeating Monsters
  • Quests

Now as of DMG2 (came out 9 months after release), these Quests are either authored entirely by a player or co-authored with the GM.

Their functionality is basically the exact same as Bonds and Alignment in Dungeon World. You make a statement about your PC and pursue it to resolution. Say you're a Sohei. You might have the following Quest:

"The Daimyo has the blood of my priesthood on his hands, even though he used surrogates to do the killing. They will be avenged when my blade finds his neck."

The essential system components/game agenda here are/is:

1) Explicitly staking out and then aggressively advocating for your thematic portfolio is fundamental to the play of 4e D&D. And its fundamentally the player's purview.

2) A GM has narration rights of situation-framing and story setback loss/complication. But there are limits. Those limits are (a) that initial situation-framing must honor (1) above along with what has come before it in the on-screen fiction and (b) the thematically-challenging material they place in front of the player must (c) be onscreen such that the player is aware of it and the stakes involved and (d) must only be the fallout of a story loss (A Skill Challenge failure or a Combat where the objective was failed).

So, back to the Sohei and the Daimyo. In this case, if the GM used his unique access to the offscreen/backstory to do something like (a) anticlimactically kill the Daimyo offscreen or (b) unilaterally (and retroactively) change the nature of the Daimyo's role so that he doesn't have blood on his hands, and either of these aren't an outgrowth of 2b>c>d above, that would have to be "Force by way of offscreen backstory/metaplot reframing of a PC's thematic portfolio (which is the player's input)."




Hopefully it makes sense why my take is that @Sadras 's situation in 5e is different than something like Quests and 4e. Now @Sadras 's table social contract or hack the above into his 5e game...but its not there at an elemental level, so I can only go by 5e's GMing role, the game's play priorities and authority distribution, and the general system/PC build stuff.
 

pemerton

Legend
back to the Sohei and the Daimyo. In this case, if the GM used his unique access to the offscreen/backstory to do something like (a) anticlimactically kill the Daimyo offscreen or (b) unilaterally (and retroactively) change the nature of the Daimyo's role so that he doesn't have blood on his hands, and either of these aren't an outgrowth of 2b>c>d above, that would have to be "Force by way of offscreen backstory/metaplot reframing of a PC's thematic portfolio (which is the player's input)."
This sort of thing is hardcore RPGing suckitude.

I think you're right that it's also force.
 
This sort of thing is hardcore RPGing suckitude.

I think you're right that it's also force.
Yeah, not great.

The thing is, I'm sure a fair amount of time its not struggle of player:GM wills or the GM douchebaggery. I'm sure a fair amount of the time its just that the GM hasn't recognized what they've actually done.

I mean, we have "professional storytellers" in directors/screen-writers who completely destroy the "thematic winnings" (and therefore legacy) of beloved franchise characters (my first acquaintance with this was how Aliens 3 wrecked the hard-fought legacy of Ripley, my favorite character of all time, from Aliens 2...it made a hell of an impact that I'll never forget)! Its not much of a stretch for hard-working, sincere (but amateur, as we are all) GMs to screw things up in the same vein!

GMs just need to work to maintain vigilance against this and be ever-thoughtful.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm sure a fair amount of time its not struggle of player:GM wills or the GM douchebaggery. I'm sure a fair amount of the time its just that the GM hasn't recognized what they've actually done.

<snip>

GMs just need to work to maintain vigilance against this and be ever-thoughtful.
Agreed it's frequently not malice. But this is why I've been saying upthread that establishing framing and consequences are two fundamental GM skills. And with your particular example it also relates to the roll of secret backstory in action resolution - another fundamental matter.

I agree vigilance is important. So is awareness of a good range of techniques and also support for understanding and developing, or sometimes thwarting, fictional trajectories. What sorts of things can help with this? AW's list of GM moves is a pretty good start!
 

Numidius

Explorer
Before it occurs it can also be directed, either partially or completely, by both the specific content introduced by the GM and the (perhaps metagame) manner in which this is done; and that's where part of the issue lies.
Yes, a big part, in my experience. Metagame, as in OOC at the table (right?), I've seen the biggest issues: from the very session zero, not allowing backgrounds, for instance, or completely negating them in session one; to outright blocking declarations, also OOC; to putting forth more and more obstacles IC to prevent a conclusion to a scene and directing the story.

Negating outcomes once rolled is something I don't see at tables, because that would be really beyond acceptance of Players.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yes, a big part, in my experience. Metagame, as in OOC at the table (right?), I've seen the biggest issues: from the very session zero, not allowing backgrounds, for instance, or completely negating them in session one; to outright blocking declarations, also OOC; to putting forth more and more obstacles IC to prevent a conclusion to a scene and directing the story.
While all valid, those aren't what I was getting at. :)

When I talk of directing player input before it happens, I'm referring to situations where a DM wants to elicit specific input and thus presents or narrates things in such a way as to prompt the desired response.

An example just a bit over the top to make my point: a DM who wants the party to go left at the next junction narrates reaching that junction as: "You reach a 4-way junction in the passage. Ahead and to the right >shrug< there's nothing. And >keen glance at each player< there's nothing to the LEFT either."

Now of course the players could still decide to go ahead, or right, or turn around and leave; but given the DM's narration and meta-presentation, chances are high they'll go left if only to see what he's on about.

Negating outcomes once rolled is something I don't see at tables, because that would be really beyond acceptance of Players.
Player-side rolls, yes. Negating DM-side rolls is also Force, and drags in the whole to-fudge-or-not-to-fudge debate.
 

pemerton

Legend
pemerton said:
And with your particular example it also relates to the roll of secret backstory in action resolution - another fundamental matter.
What do you exactly mean by that?
By secret backstory I mean elements of the fiction that are known only to the GM - and so in at least that sense are not part of a shared fiction - but that nevertheless are used by the GM to inform the outcomes of action resolution.

Like all these things there can be complex cases and perhaps sometimes boundaries are blurred. But in @Manbearcat's example we see it at work: the GM decides, "offscreen" ie unilaterally and secretly from the players, that the daimyo is dead. Now action declarations by the player in the general direction of "I kill the daimyo" or "I take steps to bring down the daimyo" all fizzle, because the daimyo is no longer around.

I think what I've just described needs to be kept distinct from GM preparation of material to use in framing (eg something like AW fronts). Some of what can look like action declaration is, in my view, more of a device to press the GM to frame some more - eg reading a charged situation in AW, if it succeeds, requires the GM to add some more detail to the current scene and share it with the player who succeeded. And that might draw upon prep.

(Not all perception-type checks are like this: eg in BW wises are just as often, or even more often, used by a player to establish new elements of the fiction.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I GMed a session of Classic Traveller today, continuing the Aliens meets Annic Nova scenario. As originally presented (ie in the published module Annic Nova), there is not a great deal more to this scenario than the players moving around the abandoned vessel learning backstory from the GM by performing variouis sorts of "moves" (some of which require checks, some of which are simply gated behind skill levels, and some of which have to be puzzled out by the players).

I call this sort of play learning what it is in the GM's notes., For it to be interesting, I think the notes have to be pretty damn clever and the atmosphere etc well presented also. I've encountered this as a player in CoC one-shots, I don't think the Annic Nova scenario, as published, gets over the line.

So I've adapted it in a couple of ways. There is an external source of pressure, namely, an Imperial Navy cutter investigating the vessel and the PCs' interest in it. That came into play today and was handled in the standard way we resolve social encounters ie a roll on the reaction table, with a +1 DM because the PC in question was a noble like the naval officer he was dealing with, and was being relatively charming in his blather. The modified result was a 12, ie genuine friendship, and so the officer has come on board the PC's ship but has accepted their explanation that things on the abandoned ship (the Annic Nova) aren't yet suitable for inspection by the Navy. No secret backstory was at work here (I'd prepped the NPCs, but it wasn't secret backstory eg the officer announced herself by her title - Lady Commander Askol - and my explanation of the circumstances of the reaction check, including the +1 DM, was all out in the open) .

There's also an internal source of pressure, namely, aliens (or rather Aliens) on board the abandoned vessel. Because of the way Traveller works - eg pretty old-school resolution for combat, based on position on a map or more abstract bands (but in this case we're using floor plans from the module) - there is a lot of scope for secret backstory to affect things. In the session today I handled that by using the surprise mechanics together with the encounter distance mechanics to determine who got the drop on whom, in circumstances where - to use AW terminology - the unwelcome truth of the aliens on board had already been well and truly revealed.

For other aspects of framing and so establishing possible action declarations, there were some INT checks, and a check where a bonus from EDU got the relevant PC over the line. None of this was at the AW-level of elegant narrative pressure, but I was using it to try and have the backstory come out and hence the framing established in ways that followed the established fiction (including the fiction of the relevant PCs) and tried to make the session about more than just learning what's in the GM's notes while not using the content of those notes as a secret determiner of action resolution outcomes.

That's a bit rambly but I hope makes some sense and helps illustrate some of the more abstract points in the first half of the post.
 
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@Lanefan

That is a good point. That is actually a part of Force in GMing that we haven't touched on.

A significant aspect of the skill of GMing a dungeon crawl or a heist is playing an extremely well-finessed game of "Blind-Man's Bluff Meets Pictionary".

  • Everyone has a card (the same card), except instead of it being on their forehead and facing the group, its face-down.
  • You know what is on the card.
  • You have to draw a picture that provokes questions and foreshadows what is on that card without bluntly or clumsily revealing the answers doing so.

There is a very fine line between too much and too little provocation and foreshadowing...and you have to deftly straddle it. You go beyond that line...its Force (because you're, even if only accidentally or clumsily, subordinating the integrity of a player's strategic and tactical decision-making).
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
@Lanefan

That is a good point. That is actually a part of Force in GMing that we haven't touched on.

A significant aspect of the skill of GMing a dungeon crawl or a heist is playing an extremely well-finessed game of "Blind-Man's Bluff Meets Pictionary".

  • Everyone has a card (the same card), except instead of it being on their forehead and facing the group, its face-down.
  • You know what is on the card.
  • You have to draw a picture that provokes questions and foreshadows what is on that card without bluntly or clumsily revealing the answers doing so.

There is a very fine line between too much and too little provocation and foreshadowing...and you have to deftly straddle it. You go beyond that line...its Force (because you're, even if only accidentally or clumsily, subordinating the integrity of a player's strategic and tactical decision-making).
For me it comes back to the GM being as neutral as possible in his/her descriptions and narrations, while still getting in all the required information to convey what the PCs see/hear/smell/etc.

Doing this halfway well first requires recognizing those times when one isn't being perhaps as neutral as one thinks. (and also then not overcorrecting, which is a trap I fell into for a while in the past)

A GM often needs a good poker face. :)
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
For me it comes back to the GM being as neutral as possible in his/her descriptions and narrations, while still getting in all the required information to convey what the PCs see/hear/smell/etc.

Doing this halfway well first requires recognizing those times when one isn't being perhaps as neutral as one thinks. (and also then not overcorrecting, which is a trap I fell into for a while in the past)

A GM often needs a good poker face. :)
Meh, players quite often miss the stuff you yell, so I don't bother at all with a poker face. I make sure information it out there because, if I'm running 5e for instance, I do not want to sit there while the players dither and discussion and question, I want to play D&D. So, I don't bother. I make sure that missing the canvas results in a head slap moment because it's been yelled at the top of my lungs (metaphorically) throughout and if it still bites the players on the arse, they immediately realize that's on them, not me for playing peek-a-boo with information.

And, they slap themselves on the head all. the. time. I swear, I could hand them my notes and it wouldn't really change how many shenanigans they end up in. It's way more fun having nothing up my sleeve, or, if I do, telling them it's dove, it's a dove, it's a dove, hey, idiots, it's a dove because they'll still guess rabbit and be surprised when it is, in fact, a dove.

All of the 'surprise' of my games comes from putting out easy to find canvases and then following what they players paint. I have no idea where something's going to go, most of the time, so the next canvas I set out is based entirely on how they painted the last one. Or didn't paint it, but flung poo.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Meh, players quite often miss the stuff you yell, so I don't bother at all with a poker face.
What I find fascinating sometimes is how they'll miss what you yell but pick up what you whisper and run away with it. :)

I make sure information it out there because, if I'm running 5e for instance, I do not want to sit there while the players dither and discussion and question, I want to play D&D.
To each their own; for me that "dither and discussion and question" phase is part of playing, and if it goes on too long I know at least one of 'em will get bored and send the balloon up somehow.

And, they slap themselves on the head all. the. time. I swear, I could hand them my notes and it wouldn't really change how many shenanigans they end up in. It's way more fun having nothing up my sleeve, or, if I do, telling them it's dove, it's a dove, it's a dove, hey, idiots, it's a dove because they'll still guess rabbit and be surprised when it is, in fact, a dove.
Mine would catch on that it's a dove, no problem there.

Then they'd ask me how much they could sell it for when they get back to town. :)
 
Role-Playing Mastery (1987) Gary Gygax.

Page 49:

There are times when the GM will bend or break the rules of the game system in order to allow his players to maintain their characters. Just as he sometimes metes out punishment for infractions, the GM at other times intervenes benevolently, spreading his aegis over the PCs to save them from probabilities gone awry. To put it bluntly, when play is at a low ebb, or it is quite likely that the players’ characters are about to suffer undue loss or extinction, the GM cheats and decrees otherwise. Opponents miss their blows, PCs manage to strike their foes, and various sorts of miracles occur. This is wrong only when it is done too liberally or when it is unwarranted. If the PC party is in danger of extermination through no direct fault of its own and because a string of unlikely occurrences have all somehow come to pass, then this is the time for the GM to step in and set things back on the right track, or at least keep them from getting any worse.​
Page 55:
In specific cases in which the PCs are in jeopardy because the rules of the game have worked against them through a rare succession of unlikely and adverse occurrences, the GM is within his rights to override the provisions of the rules for the sake of guaranteeing (for the moment, at least) the continued survival and viability of the player characters.​

Gygax goes further here than he does in the 1e DMG. He's now prepared to overrule the dice, not just for wandering monsters and secret door detection, but also in combat. The use of the phrase "set things back on the right track" might make his play style seem story-oriented, but I think the following excerpts show it's still challenge-oriented, as it is in 1e AD&D.

Page 48:

The dedicated GM is not only an impartial judge of events, but at the same time he is an active force championing the cause of both the preservation of PCs not bent on self-destruction and the continued satisfaction of players who do not seek to see the campaign ruined. Conversely, he has no ethical or moral obligation to keep a PC alive and viable if that character’s player insists on leaping into the jaws of adversity - and he owes it to himself and the others in the group to discipline or dismiss a player who has a selfish and treacherous attitude toward the campaign.​
Page 50-51:
You respond to the players’ needs by revising and expanding the campaign milieu. First they may demand more intense and detailed combat frequently. Then they might find more esoteric approaches to unusual problems more interesting. You address these preferences as soon as you become aware of the trend… difficulty arises when players try to revise the game system, violate the spirit, or make the campaign into a playground - as opposed to a testing ground - for their game personas.​
 
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Role-Playing Mastery (1987) Gary Gygax.

Page 49:

There are times when the GM will bend or break the rules of the game system in order to allow his players to maintain their characters. Just as he sometimes metes out punishment for infractions, the GM at other times intervenes benevolently, spreading his aegis over the PCs to save them from probabilities gone awry. To put it bluntly, when play is at a low ebb, or it is quite likely that the players’ characters are about to suffer undue loss or extinction, the GM cheats and decrees otherwise. Opponents miss their blows, PCs manage to strike their foes, and various sorts of miracles occur. This is wrong only when it is done too liberally or when it is unwarranted. If the PC party is in danger of extermination through no direct fault of its own and because a string of unlikely occurrences have all somehow come to pass, then this is the time for the GM to step in and set things back on the right track, or at least keep them from getting any worse.​
Page 55:
In specific cases in which the PCs are in jeopardy because the rules of the game have worked against them through a rare succession of unlikely and adverse occurrences, the GM is within his rights to override the provisions of the rules for the sake of guaranteeing (for the moment, at least) the continued survival and viability of the player characters.​

Gygax goes further here than he does in the 1e DMG. He's now prepared to overrule the dice, not just for wandering monsters and secret door detection, but also in combat. The use of the phrase "set things back on the right track" might make his play style seem story-oriented, but I think the following excerpts show it's still challenge-oriented, as it is in 1e AD&D.

Page 48:

The dedicated GM is not only an impartial judge of events, but at the same time he is an active force championing the cause of both the preservation of PCs not bent on self-destruction and the continued satisfaction of players who do not seek to see the campaign ruined. Conversely, he has no ethical or moral obligation to keep a PC alive and viable if that character’s player insists on leaping into the jaws of adversity - and he owes it to himself and the others in the group to discipline or dismiss a player who has a selfish and treacherous attitude toward the campaign.​
Page 50-51:
You respond to the players’ needs by revising and expanding the campaign milieu. First they may demand more intense and detailed combat frequently. Then they might find more esoteric approaches to unusual problems more interesting. You address these preferences as soon as you become aware of the trend… difficulty arises when players try to revise the game system, violate the spirit, or make the campaign into a playground - as opposed to a testing ground - for their game personas.​
Thanks for finding this and posting it Doug.

My thoughts:

1) People naturally change over the course of their lives. As long as your somewhat intellectually honest and humble, the corrective process of life should at least have you reflecting upon, if not revising, ideas you stood by in the past.

2) It seems to me what we're seeing here is a bit of a moving along a continuum from 1e onward. And honestly, I think its a product of (a) Gygax realizing the problem with the resolution mechanics of AD&D and (b) not seeing a path forward toward revisions or an outright new iteration that would yield a more functional, challenge-based-gaming-friendly ruleset.

This progressive move (in the span of 10 years?) toward "use bubble-gum and paper clips during play (meaning Force) to patch over the suspect parts (action resolution mechanics interactions) of the ruleset which lead to outcomes that are antithetical to authentic challenge-based-gaming priorities (eg "earned" results aren't en emergent property of merely playing the game)" is (IMO) completely incompatible with both (a) challenge-based gaming priorities in the first place and (b) design curiosity and rigor.

It seems so weird for Gygax (the godfather of challenge-based TTRPGing) to put out an ethos that is incompatible with (a) and (b).

The answer is simple:

1) Go back to the design drawing board and revise/iterate upon the problems of the ruleset that are leading to the 1st order or 2nd order undesirable effects.

2) Have an adult conversation with your players when these moments of play strike and decide, collectively, how you want to revise the gamestate to a prior state (before the wonky ruleset screwed up the emergence of "earned" outcomes from challenge-based-priorities.

I wonder how Gygax would feel about a game like Blades (and its Forged in the Dark derivatives) and Torchbearer. They're both so profoundly beyond his AD&D in terms of "earned" outcomes and interesting, challenging decision-points from a challenge-based-priority perspective. Given my contention of (2b) above, I'm left wondering if he would gawk or if he would be incredulous.
 
Honestly, i think Gygax would have liked it. It might not be his baby, and he might have done some old man kvetching, but theres no denying the success of an alternate approach. Torch Bearer and maybe DW rather than Blades are tapping the heartroot of D&D even if they use different mechanics.
 
Honestly, i think Gygax would have liked it. It might not be his baby, and he might have done some old man kvetching, but theres no denying the success of an alternate approach. Torch Bearer and maybe DW rather than Blades are tapping the heartroot of D&D even if they use different mechanics.
I'd hope he would. All of those games are homage to him.
 
I think he’d be happy with the variety of games and gaming methods of today. The fact that there’s still D&D of all kinds would help....if PbtA and FitD games had supplanted D&D rather than just being an alternative to it, then he might have felt differently!
 

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