"Illusionism" and "GM force" in RPGing

pemerton

Legend
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.
I noticed that too. @Manbearcat has refelcted on some of the bigger-picture issues this raises. My comment will be more parochial: I think he's made a mistake.

For AD&D, there is no need for the PCs to escape "unnaturally" or anything like that. He's already provided the solution in the DMG - have the reduction of a PC to zero hp count as something other than death. (I've myself applied this "solution" to a TPK in 4e.)

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.
But maybe he's no longer assuming that the players choose the encounters (via planning, evasion from wandering monsters, etc). Because his advice makes more sense in a post-Gygaxian context of the GM choosing the encounters (whether as part of an "adventure path" or as en expression of a "living, breathing world"), which means that the odds can go freakishly against the players through no fault of their own.

In the sort of dungeon-crawling set out in AD&D, though, if the players choose to take on the troll on the 4th level that's on them! And if one or more of them gets knocked unconscious and taken prisoner, then it's time for other PCs in the stable to mount a rescue (or maybe ransom) expedition.

But by 1987 Gygax must have been aware that that had become (and perhaps always was, once the game got out into the wild) a minority approach to play.
 

Sadras

Hero
For AD&D, there is no need for the PCs to escape "unnaturally" or anything like that. He's already provided the solution in the DMG - have the reduction of a PC to zero hp count as something other than death. (I've myself applied this "solution" to a TPK in 4e.)
In our last 5e session the PCs failed on a relatively difficult skill challenge (6 successes before 3 failures) which saw them unable to outrun an Astral Dreadnaught via their stolen Githyanki skiff. The result of which would have undoubtedly been a TPK, however given that
  • They are still relatively inexperienced in player input for skill challenges which was partly a reason for their overall failure (I provided them plenty examples post session to open up their minds to possibilities for future SC I may introduce); and that
  • The PCs were 2 levels under the required level for the module.
I decided that the players and I will co-narrate the loss with the in-game fiction being they were swallowed and transported to the AD's Demiplane Donjon from which they can escape given a smartly planned Word of Recall (this latter was actually done).

I'm imagining the playout of the loss narration will require the PCs to make decisions with those character decisions directly influencing the loss conditions which make sense within the fiction.
With 5e I can draw losses from (a) temporary madness; (b) additional flaws; (c) destruction of precious equipment; (d) loss/destruction of magical items; (e) loss of other valuable resource; (f) loss/major injury to henchman; and (g) ability loss

EDIT: A TPK on a side quest would not have served the campaign and would have been unsatifying to the table.
 
Last edited:
@Sadras

That's good stuff, but what you're describing is different in few ways from the move that Gygax has made from his DMG to this 1987 statement.

1) What you're depicting in your session above is typical Story Now priorities. Also, I don't see Force in your example above. I just see Fail Forward technique being deployed (which is what you should be doing if you're cribbing 4e Skill Challenges or Mouse Guard conflict resolution or anything like that). Looks like coherent GMing for Story Now from what I can divine of your excerpt.

2) Gygax is basically the forefather of Challenge-Based gaming priorities. What I'm seeing him advocate above is a either an unconscious move off of Challenge-Based gaming priorities or a conscious one and, regardless, an acceptance of the limitations of his ruleset (and with that acceptance, a move off of design curiosity and rigor). Its just very strange to see him basically advocating Force (which subordinates Challenge-Based priorities to another priority or subset of priorities). But, again, it could very well be that he got swept up in that time and was consciously moving off of Challenge-Based gaming priorities and neutral refereeing to the priorities and the Force-intensive GMing that was being advocated for at that time. That happens with people as time accrues. They want different things (and then they often go back to their old ways if they live long enough/stay with it long enough to go through another cycle of reflection and taste change).
 

Sadras

Hero
1) What you're depicting in your session above is typical Story Now priorities. Also, I don't see Force in your example above. I just see Fail Forward technique being deployed (which is what you should be doing if you're cribbing 4e Skill Challenges or Mouse Guard conflict resolution or anything like that). Looks like coherent GMing for Story Now from what I can divine of your excerpt.
Well it is not something I cribbed from my 4e books so much as having cribbed this technique from online conversations with yourself, Pemerton and a few others when I was trying to understand how to effectively deploy a SC. My games are very much not Story Now as I'm running sandbox APs but I do like to inject these techniques* into my game where I can and am comfortable to. I also feel the majority of my players enjoy this player input because
(1) It is novel/new given our table's style of play; and
(2) It gets their creative juices flowing (2 of the 4 have GM'ed before and one of which is a much better GM than me - he's biggest flaw being not runnng the campaign all the way through).

*Expanding/developing backgrounds is another area I encourage as I do attempt to weave it into our main storyline. And just recently the idea was given by Hussar to let the players create NPCs that the PCs might have interacted with. I took this and allowed them to introduce 5 NPCs with positive, negative or neutral reactions that will likely be used within our story.

2) Gygax is basically the forefather of Challenge-Based gaming priorities. What I'm seeing him advocate above is a either an unconscious move off of Challenge-Based gaming priorities or a conscious one and, regardless, an acceptance of the limitations of his ruleset (and with that acceptance, a move off of design curiosity and rigor). Its just very strange to see him basically advocating Force (which subordinates Challenge-Based priorities to another priority or subset of priorities). But, again, it could very well be that he got swept up in that time and was consciously moving off of Challenge-Based gaming priorities and neutral refereeing to the priorities and the Force-intensive GMing that was being advocated for at that time. That happens with people as time accrues. They want different things (and then they often go back to their old ways if they live long enough/stay with it long enough to go through another cycle of reflection and taste change).
This all makes sense. I agree.
 
Last edited:

pemerton

Legend
@Sadras - your exchange with @Manbearcat seems to have covered most of it, but I'll offer my own take.

In his DMG, Gygax allows that zero hp suffered by a well-played PC (and hence resulting not from poor play but from bad luck) might be "commuted" to some lesser consequence (eg maiming or unconsciousness) that still recognises what it is that the monster has done (ie defeated the PC in cmbat). As I think I already posted in this thread, I don't find that an objectionable approach, not even in the challenge-based game that Gygax favours.

In your example the conflict was an evasion skill challenge. The PCs lost, and - it seems - perhaps due to less-than-optimal play, but not necessarily bad play given their knowledge and experience. The consequence for failure impicit in the situation was being caught by the Astral Dreadnought - and instead of running that as a combat you've just hard-framed them into the demiplane instead (in the fiction, they've been swallowed).

That might count as force if you have a player who really wanted to fight the dreadnought! But as you describe it, it seems like the players are quite happy with your framing and don't want to contest the premise that their PCs got swallowed by declaring contrary actions.

And I don't even think it's inimical to challenge-oriented play provided that the players (and their PCs) suffoer some sort of meaningful loss that correlates with their defeat. (It would need to be more severe than what they would have had to pay to escape, or else escaping would be no more a win than being swallowed. This would be one way of distinguishing challenge-based play from story-now-type play in this context.)
 
But maybe he's no longer assuming that the players choose the encounters (via planning, evasion from wandering monsters, etc). Because his advice makes more sense in a post-Gygaxian context of the GM choosing the encounters (whether as part of an "adventure path" or as en expression of a "living, breathing world"), which means that the odds can go freakishly against the players through no fault of their own.

In the sort of dungeon-crawling set out in AD&D, though, if the players choose to take on the troll on the 4th level that's on them! And if one or more of them gets knocked unconscious and taken prisoner, then it's time for other PCs in the stable to mount a rescue (or maybe ransom) expedition.

But by 1987 Gygax must have been aware that that had become (and perhaps always was, once the game got out into the wild) a minority approach to play.
I think the type of play advocated in Role-Playing Mastery is similar to that advocated in the 1e PHB in the section headed Successful Adventures (pgs 107-109). Players have an objective and they try to achieve it without getting sidetracked. But there’s an important difference – in Role-Playing Mastery the objective is chosen by the GM rather than the players. The reason for this is there has been a shift away from mega-dungeons and towards a more familiar (at least to us) scenario or adventure setup where the players are given a mission at the start of play. There is an adventure path in the sense of a defined set of victory conditions, and possibly quite a number of actions the players will have to undertake to achieve that victory, but because this is strongly challenge-oriented play the GM is actively trying to get the players to depart from that path and thus fail the mission.

Setting Objectives

1e PHB page 107:

First get in touch with all those who will be included in the adventure, or if all are not available, at least talk to the better players so that you will be able to set an objective for the adventure. Whether the purpose is so simple as to discover a flight of stairs to the next lowest unexplored level or so difficult as to find and destroy an altar to an alien god, some firm objective should be established and then adhered to as strongly as possible.​

Role-Playing Mastery:

Page 43:

The game tells what the nature of challenges within its scope will be, but there is usually no direct information as to the specific objective of each play session. The GM who develops the campaign milieu will devise these objectives singularly or in conjunction with material supplied for this purpose by the publisher of the rules system. What sorts of challenges are appropriate? How stiff should the opposition be? Generally, these are questions the GM will answer by examining the game materials, assessing the prowess of the PCs and their players, and then selecting and combining elements of the game rules and the milieu so that the strength of the opposition is tailored to the capabilities of those who will contest against it.​

Page 44-45:

The first session begins. Players are introduced to the game and its concepts. Some goal, objective, or end is conveyed…​
The task of creating the game world is tremendous... Let’s follow an example to see just how demanding the exercise is.​
The genre of the game is action-adventure in the early part of the twentieth century - let’s assume from 1900 through about 1935 or so. Our GM decides that the campaign setting will begin in San Francisco. The quest problem will be to discover the cause of a series of murders and mysterious disappearances in that city.​

The following advice is from Chapter 7, Tactical Mastery, which is directed towards players.

Page 122-123:

Know the mission. Based on the information you are given in the background and setting of a scenario, define exactly what you are going to try to do. Sometimes the mission will be spelled out in no uncertain terms; if it is not, you should be able to deduce it logically from the information provided. Keep the mission in mind at all times, so that each activity you engage in assists in the overall aim.​
Know the goal. The mission should have a set goal. When that goal is successfully achieved or arrived at, the mission is complete and the adventure should conclude at that point.​

Avoiding Unnecessary Encounters

1e PHB page 109:

Avoid unnecessary encounters. This advice usually means the difference between success and failure when it is followed intelligently. Your party has an objective, and wandering monsters are something which stand between them and it. The easiest way to overcome such difficulties is to avoid the interposing or trailing creature if at all possible. Wandering monsters typically weaken the party through use of equipment and spells against them, and they also weaken the group by inflicting damage. Very few are going to be helpful; fewer still will have anything of any value to the party. Run first and ask questions later. In the same vein, shun encounters with creatures found to be dwelling permanently in the dungeon (as far as you can tell, that is) unless such creatures are part of the set objective or the monster stands between the group and the goal it has set out to gain. Do not be sidetracked. A good referee will have many ways to distract an expedition, many things to draw attention, but ignore them if at all possible.​

Role-Playing Mastery:

Page 125:

Evade and avoid. Whenever possible, conserve time and other resources by avoiding unnecessary confrontation. Slip away without fighting, negotiate, or use trickery. The goal of the mission is paramount, and only those activities that will lend probable success to attaining that goal should be undertaken.​

Page 131:

The GM’s information… will be keyed to describe what facts will be revealed if PCs interact with a certain location or item within the scenario area at a certain time… PCs must either follow the clues or else move outside the scope of the scenario...​
The master GM... will deliberately include information not found in the scenario as originally presented in published form. A bit of this information may actually be helpful, but the rest is for another purpose altogether. The GM will add it specifically to mislead the players, so that they will not follow any of the prescribed routes and go wandering off into a limbo that is unrelated to the adventure.​
 
Last edited:

pemerton

Legend
I think the type of play advocated in Role-Playing Mastery is similar to that advocated in the 1e PHB in the section headed Successful Adventures (pgs 107-109). Players have an objective and they try to achieve it without getting sidetracked. But there’s an important difference – in Role-Playing Mastery the objective is chosen by the GM rather than the players. The reason for this is there has been a shift away from mega-dungeons and towards a more familiar (at least to us) scenario or adventure setup where the players are given a mission at the start of play. There is an adventure path in the sense of a defined set of victory conditions, and possibly quite a number of actions the players will have to undertake to achieve that victory, but because this is strongly challenge-oriented play the GM is actively trying to get the players to depart from that path and thus fail the mission.
Once the GM sets the objectives, and the obstacles, and so the players have to keep banging their heads against it if they get unlucky, then there is the potential for RPG disaster. I've been a player in those games (never a GM, thankfully) and they generally suck. GM cheating doesn't make it any better in my personal experience.

One exceptoin to the above: well-GMed atmospheric CoC, where the external obstacles are irrelevant and my main job as player is to experience and externalise the collapse into madness. But that's simulationism with a touch of theatre, not challenge-oriented play, and so maybe not an exception after all.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think the type of play advocated in Role-Playing Mastery is similar to that advocated in the 1e PHB in the section headed Successful Adventures (pgs 107-109). Players have an objective and they try to achieve it without getting sidetracked. But there’s an important difference – in Role-Playing Mastery the objective is chosen by the GM rather than the players. The reason for this is there has been a shift away from mega-dungeons and towards a more familiar (at least to us) scenario or adventure setup where the players are given a mission at the start of play. There is an adventure path in the sense of a defined set of victory conditions, and possibly quite a number of actions the players will have to undertake to achieve that victory, but because this is strongly challenge-oriented play the GM is actively trying to get the players to depart from that path and thus fail the mission.

Setting Objectives

1e PHB page 107:

First get in touch with all those who will be included in the adventure, or if all are not available, at least talk to the better players so that you will be able to set an objective for the adventure. Whether the purpose is so simple as to discover a flight of stairs to the next lowest unexplored level or so difficult as to find and destroy an altar to an alien god, some firm objective should be established and then adhered to as strongly as possible.​

Role-Playing Mastery:

Page 43:

The game tells what the nature of challenges within its scope will be, but there is usually no direct information as to the specific objective of each play session. The GM who develops the campaign milieu will devise these objectives singularly or in conjunction with material supplied for this purpose by the publisher of the rules system. What sorts of challenges are appropriate? How stiff should the opposition be? Generally, these are questions the GM will answer by examining the game materials, assessing the prowess of the PCs and their players, and then selecting and combining elements of the game rules and the milieu so that the strength of the opposition is tailored to the capabilities of those who will contest against it.​

Page 44-45:

The first session begins. Players are introduced to the game and its concepts. Some goal, objective, or end is conveyed…​
The task of creating the game world is tremendous... Let’s follow an example to see just how demanding the exercise is.​
The genre of the game is action-adventure in the early part of the twentieth century - let’s assume from 1900 through about 1935 or so. Our GM decides that the campaign setting will begin in San Francisco. The quest problem will be to discover the cause of a series of murders and mysterious disappearances in that city.​

The following advice is from Chapter 7, Tactical Mastery, which is directed towards players.

Page 122-123:

Know the mission. Based on the information you are given in the background and setting of a scenario, define exactly what you are going to try to do. Sometimes the mission will be spelled out in no uncertain terms; if it is not, you should be able to deduce it logically from the information provided. Keep the mission in mind at all times, so that each activity you engage in assists in the overall aim.​
Know the goal. The mission should have a set goal. When that goal is successfully achieved or arrived at, the mission is complete and the adventure should conclude at that point.​

Avoiding Unnecessary Encounters

1e PHB page 109:

Avoid unnecessary encounters. This advice usually means the difference between success and failure when it is followed intelligently. Your party has an objective, and wandering monsters are something which stand between them and it. The easiest way to overcome such difficulties is to avoid the interposing or trailing creature if at all possible. Wandering monsters typically weaken the party through use of equipment and spells against them, and they also weaken the group by inflicting damage. Very few are going to be helpful; fewer still will have anything of any value to the party. Run first and ask questions later. In the same vein, shun encounters with creatures found to be dwelling permanently in the dungeon (as far as you can tell, that is) unless such creatures are part of the set objective or the monster stands between the group and the goal it has set out to gain. Do not be sidetracked. A good referee will have many ways to distract an expedition, many things to draw attention, but ignore them if at all possible.​

Role-Playing Mastery:

Page 125:

Evade and avoid. Whenever possible, conserve time and other resources by avoiding unnecessary confrontation. Slip away without fighting, negotiate, or use trickery. The goal of the mission is paramount, and only those activities that will lend probable success to attaining that goal should be undertaken.​

Page 131:

The GM’s information… will be keyed to describe what facts will be revealed if PCs interact with a certain location or item within the scenario area at a certain time… PCs must either follow the clues or else move outside the scope of the scenario...​
The master GM... will deliberately include information not found in the scenario as originally presented in published form. A bit of this information may actually be helpful, but the rest is for another purpose altogether. The GM will add it specifically to mislead the players, so that they will not follow any of the prescribed routes and go wandering off into a limbo that is unrelated to the adventure.​
So, the goal of the Master GM is then to frustrate the players, but save them if said frustration would end prematurely and by accident, thereby maximizing time spent in frustration. The goal of the players is to avoid the GM's attempt to frustrate and instead discern the (GM obfuscated) proscribed route that allows for success. I'm not sure these are laudable play goals.
 

pemerton

Legend
So, the goal of the Master GM is then to frustrate the players, but save them if said frustration would end prematurely and by accident, thereby maximizing time spent in frustration. The goal of the players is to avoid the GM's attempt to frustrate and instead discern the (GM obfuscated) proscribed route that allows for success. I'm not sure these are laudable play goals.
Like I posted, though, I've played sessions like this (in the 90s) and have alsorread modules that essentialy presume this and read accounts of play that seemed to be like this (and a lot of this was since the 90s).

The most common version I've seen and heard of is where the "quest-giver" - to whom the players have to resond if there is to be a game, given the basic premises of play in this mode - is actually the villain/traitor, which means that most of what the PCs do ends up being pointless or running contrary to their aspirations, and it all ends up in a highly GM-mediated "big reveal" and showdown.
 

Advertisement

Top