"Illusionism" and "GM force" in RPGing

Doug McCrae

Legend
Ed Simbalist (co-creator of Chivalry & Sorcery) recommends heavy use of GM Force to "tell the story" in the second part of his two part essay "Kismet" in the rpg fanzine Alarums & Excursions #44 (April 1979). Jon Peterson discusses this essay extensively in The Elusive Shift (2020), placing it in the context of both Gary Gygax's advice in the AD&D 1e DMG (1979) and Part I of Lewis Pulsipher's "D&D Campaigns" article series in White Dwarf #1 (June/July 1977).

Only in the second “Kismet” essay did Simbalist unpack his “role-playing mode” of refereeing and what he believed the responsibility for fate truly means in a role-playing game… In the course of role playing, a character “will from time to time be faced with CERTAIN death. At that point the skill of the GM as story teller is put to the test. A good story will not end before its time. So also might be said of a good role playing campaign scenario.”​
When faced with this situation, Simbalist argues that the “story teller” referee “accepts his role as Fate and responsibly works out a solution which does not result in the character’s death.” What Simbalist envisioned here goes far beyond the “shade” that a Bunnies & Burrows referee should cast over a lethal saving throw. It may include all sorts of quiet changes to the game situation that the system generates: a random encounter roll that calls for six skeletons instead delivers only two, or a crushing damage roll might be reduced to a glancing blow. “Where,” Simbalist elaborated, “the game systems thwart my view of the truth of the moment and deny me the goals I have set for the particular scenario or for the campaign as a whole, I IGNORE THE RULES.”...​
Gygax permitted the ignoring of a deadly die roll to prevent unfair punishments, whereas Simbalist allowed it for a different purpose, to preserve the overall narrative that the referee intends for the campaign, which trumps all other concerns for him. But like the “shade” in Bunnies & Burrows, this must be done tacitly, behind the figurative referee’s screen, because the referee must guide the story along, as Simbalist put it, “without lessening the tension and anxiety felt by the player whose character is threatened by a certain death” (AE 44). Simbalist stressed that “players should never know when GM discretion is being exercised” and that they “cannot be allowed to count on Fate to step in and save their characters from the consequences of stupidity or miscalculation” because that would spoil what Bunnies & Burrows calls the players’ “illusion that they determine their own fates.”​
By centering role-playing games on the campaign story, Simbalist moved the focus on system execution radically away from players and even designers and instead onto a management of the flow of events hinging on the referee’s dramatic skill. His emphasis on preserving the story anticipated but vastly exceeded the sentiments that would appear in the Dungeon Masters Guide a few months after Simbalist’s “Kismet” essays in 1979: where Gygax would invoke Conan’s narrow escapes in his explanation of saving throws, Simbalist talked about the more formulaic tale of Sinbad. Simbalist related that “Sinbad is destined to triumph over the evil Mage who has usurped power in Baghdad and holds the nation in bondage. He will rescue the princess, marry her, free his people, and engineer the downfall of his enemy. Kismet. Fate” (AE 44). For Gygax, the system is obligated only to provide “a chance, no matter how small,” of survival, whereas Simbalist looked to the referee rather than to the system and assigned the referee the responsibility for casting any “shade” necessary to drive the story in a satisfying direction, all the while performing any sleight of hand necessary to convince the players that the referee is impartially executing the system—to preserve Pulsipher’s “sense of control by the players of their own fate,” though here it is an illusory sense.​
But would players really retain the necessary state of dramatic uncertainty? Curiously, Simbalist concluded his second “Kismet” essay with a note about one of his own characters, a certain Erik Bloodaxe, whose “Wyrd (destiny) was to die after a great slaying of enemies. His sole goal is to attain Valhalla.” It seemed as if Simbalist’s character had some “purpose” in the sense that Mark Chilenskas assigned to characters in his campaign, but it was not a hidden purpose—as a player, Simbalist was fully aware of it. He expressed confidence that the referees would never deprive Erik of this destiny: “Wyrd has decreed and the GMs in our campaign respect that fate and will not give him an ignominious death.” Apparently, his certainty about the preordainment of that character arc did not diminish his own satisfaction with the game; it instead became the game’s premise. “So far I have been denied my destiny, and I still live. I will have my fate! . . . This I know because the GMs in our group will not let it be otherwise. I await only the manner of it.”​
How a player could know and to some degree dictate his character’s destiny in a game where referees maintain the illusion of simply executing an impartial system, rather than steering a story, posed an apparent paradox. But Simbalist’s “Kismet” essays provided the most considered defense of the philosophy criticized in Pulsipher’s White Dwarf 1 essay which had divided D&D players into “those who want to play a game as a game and those who want to play it as a fantasy novel.” (pgs 197-198)​

In this section Peterson discusses Simbalist's defence of his techniques in Alarums & Excursions #47 (July 1979).

For Simbalist, these techniques were in the service of a higher calling: he insisted that “FRP is an art form” and that “only the DM/GM can tell the story of an adventure,” not the dice (AE 47). But although the referee tells the story, this is not to say that players are disenfranchised because “the player ultimately chooses the destiny of his character; insofar as he provides a viable and reasonable story line, the GM’s task is to assist the character to realize his destiny by providing experiences which logically and honestly test the character’s worthiness to attain it.” It is the player’s responsibility to provide that fundamental premise for his or her participation in the game, and it is the referee’s responsibility to nurture that premise. But a game design itself can never substitute for a referee because a referee “can note and process data no game system could handle—the numerous intangibles that are the hallmarks of FRP gaming like personal interaction between the participants, character motivation, or the success of a line of action that arose spontaneously during the adventure.” In Simbalist’s view, the referee has the foremost place in the implementation of role-playing games, something far beyond the reach of mere system design.​
No one familiar with Chivalry & Sorcery could fail to notice that its rulebook contains nothing like the principles that Simbalist expounded at such length in his essays on kismet, story-telling, and the idiocy of the dice. This discrepancy perhaps points to a deeper paradox that helps explain why designers and players lavished such attention on role-playing game philosophy: as able as Simbalist was to explain in an essay what he believed a role-playing game should be, a system translating those principles into rules proved elusive. (pg 201)​
 
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pemerton

Legend
Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift (2020) has shown, I think, that this has to be put back no later than 1976.
But I think it becomes canonical in the 80s. I think the change in wording of the Traveller rules is not leading. It is following - it is Traveller, in its rulebooks, making clear that it, too, is a RPG in this sense that is crystallising out of the earlier practice and texts you've quoted.

How a player could know and to some degree dictate his character’s destiny in a game where referees maintain the illusion of simply executing an impartial system, rather than steering a story, posed an apparent paradox.

<snip>

a game design itself can never substitute for a referee because a referee “can note and process data no game system could handle—the numerous intangibles that are the hallmarks of FRP gaming like personal interaction between the participants, character motivation, or the success of a line of action that arose spontaneously during the adventure.” In Simbalist’s view, the referee has the foremost place in the implementation of role-playing games, something far beyond the reach of mere system design.
Some years ago now I posted, this, reflecting on the same Lewis Pulsipher essays you quote Peterson referring to:

I do like the advice about not manipulating the players. It was around 1986, with original Oriental Adventures, that I started to discover a way of GMing in which the GM would make stuff up on the spot, while still allowing players the scope to make choices which are genuine in their consequences, thereby avoiding the railroading that Pulsipher warns against. (More than 15 years later I discovered that this approach to GMing had been refined and theorised by Ron Edwards and others at The Forge.)
Of the early RPGs, the one that I know that I think perhaps came closest to this in its system was Classic Traveller. But as per the quote in the OP, instead of trying to follow that path it was pulled back into the emerging consensus of how RPGing should work.
 

Haiku Elvis

Knuckle-dusters, glass jaws and wooden hearts.
It's funny. Until joining forums like this I hadn't really thought about these things (in this way at least) or really been aware of the debates but coming of role playing age in the late 80s/early 90s if you asked me what a GM does I would instinctively descibe something similar to the choreographed novel of the OP and feel the GMs role is to provide well prepared and pre set up adventures and keep the game on track.
However as my first and longest and most formative gaming group was my school friends who were definitely of the "hey screw this quest business. Let's rob the richest merchant in town and use the money to buy magic swords and impress girls" type of players, if I look back on how I actually GM in practice it's always been more the 'in the now' react to what the players do style. (out of sheer bloody neccesity initially then out of habit) and my carefully crafted scenes become a general grab bag of ideas to throw in the mix in whatever order and form makes sense in reaction to the players actions.
 




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