"Illusionism" and "GM force" in RPGing


No flips for you!
I don't want to derail or distract from the OP's thesis other than to note that factual disagreement. I do think that his preferred method of analysis was largely a response to some of ... for lack of a better phrase ... White Wolf excess.

I think if I was to look critically at it, the issue of what is, and isn't, DM force can vary depending on the perspective and on the table. Saying, "Let's play X module" or "Y Adventure Path" necessarily involves DM Force (with consent), and table buy in. Is there a meaningful difference "Um, do you guys really want to leave the town? I don't have anything else prepared tonight ..." as opposed to skillfully finding reasons for the players to want to stay in the town?

I don't know. Most of us are not good enough to improv an entire world, and have to rely on at least some tricks and tips (or heuristics) to compensate. To me, it is objectionable only so much as the DM is using the PCs to tell the DMs story. But others have different views.
Improv isn't required to avoid Force. I can prep a full dungeon crawl and run it without an iota of Force. Force is, simply put, the pushing of GM desired outcomes. @Manbearcat had an excellent definition of it in another thread:

Manipulation of the gamestate (typically covert) by a GM which nullifies (or in slightly more benign cases; modifies) player input in order to form or maintain a narrative that conforms to the GM's vision.

Illusionism is use use of Force in a way that is largely unnoticed by the players at the point of application.

If I have prepped material, and the players are playing through it, and I'm being impartial in how I adjudicate that interaction, no Force or improv is present. Alternatively, I could play a game, like Blades in the Dark, that follows action moment to moment and builds on the current fiction in bite-sized, and therefore less daunting, chunks, and spreads the need to create around the entire table. No Force is present there (and, indeed, Illusionism is next to impossible as any application of Force will stick out like a sore thumb).

But, yes, I agree that Force is something that is quite common, and not necessarily negative, in D&D style games. When I run D&D, I do use Force, even as I try to limit having to do so. So, I'm not going to tell you that Force is Teh Badness. It's definitely something to be aware of, as it impacts play, and something that a number of very popular game systems say absolutely nothing about while being lousy with it.

log in or register to remove this ad


"The Old School Revival, Old School Renaissance, or simply OSR, is a movement among players of tabletop role-playing games (especially Dungeons & Dragons) that draws inspiration from the earliest days of tabletop RPGs in the 1970s."

The various rulesets and retroclones that we have today draw inspiration from the older rulesets, but the best evidence of what OSR is and was is not on the cleaned up clones, but in the originals.

Which is why (early) Traveler and OD&D and pre-UA 1e and B/X are (IMO) OSR. As OS as a R can be.

Okay gotcha. I know where the OSR gets its name from, I just found it odd to see it used for the original games rather than those emulating them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use it that way before, so I wanted to make sure there wasn’t more to it beyond your preference to use the term that way.


No flips for you!
"The Old School Revival, Old School Renaissance, or simply OSR, is a movement among players of tabletop role-playing games (especially Dungeons & Dragons) that draws inspiration from the earliest days of tabletop RPGs in the 1970s."

The various rulesets and retroclones that we have today draw inspiration from the older rulesets, but the best evidence of what OSR is and was is not on the cleaned up clones, but in the originals.

Which is why (early) Traveler and OD&D and pre-UA 1e and B/X are (IMO) OSR. As OS as a R can be.
That's an extremely idiosyncratic and confusing point of view. It's akin to saying that turn of the century folk music is the same as jazz, because jazz was inspired, in part, by it.

Also, OSR isn't just the clones. Those are a small subset that used the 3.x open gaming license to effectively republish the out-of-print editions as closely as possible. OSR includes a lot of things that aren't really that close to the OS materials, while clearly inspired by them. Torchbearer, for instance, is clearly inspired by Basic, but it's a very different beast, both under the hood and in play.


No flips for you!
I defined it as I use it.
On the other hand, I have absolutely no idea why anyone would use either 3.x for OSR or ... Torchbearer?

Torchbearer is, IMO, about 590 miles away from OSR.
Yeah, you have a very idiosyncratic definition of OSR. You might want to be aware that your personal definition is pretty different from how the term is generally used, as it may avoid confusion in the future. I think there's a recent thread that talks about how discussions of games is often derailed because people use terms in ways that are confusing or different from other people and how that impacts discussion. You might have seen it? ;)


Mod Squad
Staff member
"...the referee has already developed characters and setting which bear on the group's activities, and they are guided gently to the proper locations. Properly done, the players never know that the referee has manipulated them to a fore-ordained goal"

The "gentle guidance" and "manipulation" referred to here are exactly instances of what gets labelled GM force.

... this idea was largely consolidated in the 90s. White Wolf/Storyteller system's "Golden Rule" is the most famous statement of it.

I think in this you are... rather exceedingly incorrect here. This is like saying that a screwdriver is the act of prying open a can of paint!

Rule Zero, and the Golden Rule are tools for the GM. One possible use of that tool is GM Force as you define it above. But, there are a bunch of other uses for the tool which are NOT GM Force. .

Say one of my players comes up with a character build that is abusive. As GM, I may nerf a feat used in the build to keep the PC power balance appropriate. This is a use of Rule Zero that is not aimed at any particular pre-ordained goal, and so is not GM Force.

Meanwhile, there are techniques a GM can use to force a given storyline or sequence of events in game that do not require adjustments of the rules, such that Rule Zero or the Golden Rule do not apply.

Thus, I think GM Force and Rule Zero are orthogonal.


@Ovinomancer - my understanding of the Golden Rule is that it is not just [i[if you don't like a rule, change it[/i] but rather ignore the rules, if necessary, in the interest of the story. It is an instruction/permission directed to the GM (ie the players are't being conferred permission to ignore the rules in the interests of the story).

I agree with you that prep and force are independent. Lewis Pulsipher is (was? I'm talking about stuff he weote 40 years ago) the best advocate I know of the wargaming/"skilled play" style of D&D (Gygax is the second best I know) - in his articles in early White Dwarf Pulsipher emphasises the importance of prep, in part to avoid force (eg if you prep, you have an impartial answer to the action declaration I cast Detect Magic - what glows?).

From his wargaming perspective, Pulsipher is pretty unrestrained in his criticism of the "choregographed novel" approach to D&D. It's interesting to revisit his criticisms today in light of the emergence of that as a dominant mode of RPGing, and then a new and prominent wave of criticism from a different (Forge/non-wargaming) perspective.

I wouldn't characterise choosing a module as GM force, because it's not really guidance or manipulation - it doesn't interact with action declaration or resolution at all. On the other hand, a response to an action declaration We go west of Please don't go west, I haven't mapped that out yet probably counts as force - I guess it's a type of adjudication of the declaration - but certainly not illusionism!

Roger Musson, who was another very thoughtful contributor to early White Dwarf who engaged with some of these issues, advocated a type of "illusionism light" for such situations - don't negat the action declaration per se, but place something there (his example is a dozen ogres holding a union meeting) that will make the players revise their decision. That sort of tactic is probably going to be obvious enough in many cases that it's not really serving an illusionist purpose but rather providing a rudimentary peg on which all the participants can hang their immersion in the shared fiction.

Here is the Gygas quote from The Strategic Reviw (2.2, Apr 1976) that @lowke13 mentioned:

[A]bsolute disinterest must be exercised by the Dungeonmaster, and if a favorite player stupidly puts himself into a situation where he is about to be killed, let the dice tell the story and KILL him. This is not to say that you should never temper chance with a bit of “Divine Intervention,” but helping players should be a rare act on the referee’s part, and the action should only be taken when fate seems to have unjustly condemned an otherwise good player, and then not in every circumstance should the referee intervene.​

To me this seems very similar to the following from p 110 of his DMG:

You do have every right to overrule the dice at any time if there is a particular course of events that you would like to have occur. In making such a decision you should never seriously harm the party or a non-player character with your actions. "ALWAYS GIVE A MONSTER AN EVEN BREAK!" , . .

Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time. Yet you do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well. When they have done something stupid or have not taken precautions, then let the dice fall where they may! Again, if you have available ample means of raising characters from the dead, even death is not too severe; remember, however, the constitution-based limit to resurrections. Yet one die roll that you should NEVER tamper with is the SYSTEM SHOCK ROLL to be raised from the dead. If a character fails that roll, which he or she should make him or herself, he or she is FOREVER DEAD. There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and again the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each!​

I don't see either passage as advocating for GM force, and nor for illusionism. The focus is on preserving the correlation between skilled play and PC survival, and even in respect of that there is an evident degree of hesitation - both expressly in the advice, and also in the surrounding admonitions to disinterest and to giving monsters and NPCs an even break.

Where Gygax in his DMG seems most comfortable endorsing GM interference with rolls is on this same page, in relation to "finding a particular clue, e.g. a secret door that leads to a complex of monsters and treasures that will be especially entertaining" and on p 9, where he suggests that if a party is "doing everything possible to travel quickly and quietly to their planned destination" but the GM keeps getting wandering monsters on the die check, then rather than "spoil such an otherwise enjoyable time" the GM might "omit the wandering monsters indicated by the die." He contrasts this setting aside of the wandering monster result with "allow[ing] the party to kill them [ie rolled monsters] easily or escape unnaturally" which would be "contrary to the major precepts of the game". And he also says that "If a party deserves to have these beasties inflicted upon them, that is another matter" ie the GM should not set aside the wandering monster result.

This approach to wanderming monsters can be seen as another instance of preserving the correlation between skilled play and PC success, but it is connected to introduction of content by the GM. The secret door example is also about introduction of content. One can see how the use of GM decision-making around introduction of content can drift into the "choreographed novel" approach, especially because wandering mosters are both content introduction but also a mode of consequence for action declaration (epsecially poor and time-wasting declared actions); but I don't think it's the same thing. In the choreographed novel, the GM is doing more than just opening up an opportunity for hijinks (as with the secret door example), and there is no longer any sort of guiding principle of trying to ensure that skilled players are not unduly penalised by poor dice rolls on their or the GM's part.

The 1977 version of Traveller contemplates the referee setting up special worlds, or running special encounters, that will be especially interesting for the players. These are flagged as express departures from the basic principles of random generation of content. But, again, I think these suggestions around content introduction have to be drifted quite a bit to get to the "choreographed novel" of the 1982 version.

Setting up a dichotomy between OSR and the 80s editions seems like weird, false dichotomy to me that is ahistorical.

While it was much less common to have E&E (examples and explanations) in gaming manuals for OSR, it is also equally clear that both by custom and in the scant materials we do see, that "gentle guidance" was used in OSR.

On the other hand I see a stark historical divide in D&D itself in the 80s, with utterly unrestrained force taking over as the dominant style in the mid 80s when the Dragonlance Saga became immensely popular. That module series was a complete railroad campaign and had such things as the Obscure Death Rule to prevent story-critical PCs dying too soon.

The Old School editions that all the OSR I've read follow all reject this path that D&D headed down in the 80s - and RPGs were going that way before it took over as the dominant style being published for D&D.


Say one of my players comes up with a character build that is abusive. As GM, I may nerf a feat used in the build to keep the PC power balance appropriate. This is a use of Rule Zero that is not aimed at any particular pre-ordained goal, and so is not GM Force.
This is not the Golden Rule of WW/Storyteller as I understand it. You are talking about curation in list-based PC building. This is an unhappy aspect of that sort of system, though it doesn't have to be done by the GM - when we play list-based PC-build games, my players can be quite good at doing their own curation based on their own sense of what is fair and what's an exploit.

I'm talking about the proposition that the GM can alter/set aside the mechanics in the interests of the story. I don't have books in front of me, but Googling took me to a possibly copyright-violating Italian website where I found this from Ch 8 of V:tM:

. . . you choose, for the interests of the story, that the rebellion succeeds, thanks to or in spite of the characters' actions. . . .

Your ultimate finale must be worth the effort the characters went through to get there. This is a golden rule of storytelling. Anticlimaxes work fine in books, but not when a group of people have put in hours of effort to reach a goal. The more the players and their characters have to endure, the more dramatic the climax has to be, or they will come away disappointed.​

The Storyteller here is not being advised to curate broken interactions from complex lists. This is a more elaborate account of how to run a "choreographed novel".

Remove ads


Remove ads

Recent & Upcoming Releases