On "Illusionism" (+)

Celebrim

Legend
On term that I use a lot is “Illusionism”. The standard definition of “Illusionism” is GM’s offering player’s a game choice which appears to matter but which does not in fact matter because the GM uses his role as secret keeper and as narrator of the fiction to hide the player’s lack of agency from them. This isn’t a bad definition, but I tend to use the term more broadly for any situation where the player believes they are playing one game but actually they are playing another. This can actually extend to situations where even the GM believes one game is being played when in fact the real game is very different – that is the GM themselves buy into the illusion.

“Illusionism” is normally used in the context of RPGs, but in fact is not limited to them. One of the best ways to explain the general theory of illusionism is to look at the classic Paul Newman and Tom Cruise movies “The Color of Money” which at its heart is a movie about “Illusionism”. In the movie, Newman plays a pool hustler Eddie who discovers a talented pool player played by Tom Cruise named Vincent who bets on the outcome of his games. Newman tells Vincent that he is playing the game wrong, and that the secret of winning is to always make it seem like his opponent can win. That is to say, the secret of getting the outcome Vincent is playing for – money – is to sucker his opponent’s into thinking that they can win by playing less well than he is able. Eddie then teaches Vincent the art of Illusionism, where the audience thinks they are playing one game but really they are playing another. The idea is to win by as little as possible and only at the last moment. Later in the movie, Eddie realizes that as he’s gotten older he’s allowed his pool game to slip. And Eddie goes back to playing as well as he is able in order to prove himself out of pride and the love of competition, and not for the money. He encounters Vincent in a major professional pool tournament, and after a dramatic game barely beats Vincent. But then Vincent tells Eddie that he in fact threw the game and offers to split the money from his hustle with Eddie. This gets Eddie furious because he discovers the game he thought he was playing was an Illusion. He thought he was playing a competitive game with Vincent, but in fact Vincent was playing for money off a bet that he would lose.

Now in the context of an RPG, “Illusionism” is neither an unmitigated good nor an unmitigated bad. It’s a tool in the GM’s toolbox and it’s a powerful tool that every GM will use from time to time. The trouble with it is that like all the railroading tools that a GM can use to produce a particular outcome, it’s easy to overuse it and a little of it goes a long way. A game that overuses Illusionism becomes a game where the participants believe that they have agency but in fact they do not – in other words, too much illusionism and you go from using a railroading tool to running a railroad. This becomes particularly problematic when the players see through the Illusionism and realize that they have been tricked and the game was rigged in some fashion – either for them or against them. Discovering that you won or lost not because of anything you did, but merely because the GM decided on it is for many players a very deflating or frustrating discovery.

Referring back to my essay on Railroading, “Schrodinger’s Map” is one example of illusionism. For those that don’t want to follow the link, the idea behind “Schrodinger’s Map” is the GM determines where everything in the dungeon is only after the PC’s have made their choice which way to go. In this way you can always ensure that the PC’s path through the dungeon is the ideal one for the story you want to produce. Similarly, you can use something like “Schrodinger’s Stat Block” to ensure that the climatic encounter with the BBEG always is in fact climatic, with the PC’s struggling until at the dramatic moment when they are almost out of resources that one good roll turns the battle in the PC’s favor. For example, instead of giving the BBEG a fixed number of hit points, you can just simply decide when the BBEG goes down and then mark that down as the BBEG’s hit points retroactively.

Most commonly in my own game I use “Schrondinger’s Time Warps”. A lot of times in my game I know that certain events are supposed to happen at some point, but since games often proceed in ways I can’t plan for, and since I don’t always have accurate distances between X and Y or precise locations of everything that is happening off stage, I have a lot of freedom as a GM to determine when things happen and how long it takes for something to happen. For example, in a recent game I knew that reinforcements were coming to support both sides of a conflict, but had no way of knowing exactly how far away each group was. Since I was motivated as a GM for the scene to play out in a climatic way, I determined at some point that the bad guys would be reinforced in 10 rounds and the good guys reinforcements would arrive 3 rounds later. This I thought would produce an optimal play experience if everything worked out like I hoped. As it happened, 10 rounds turned out to be the perfect choice where the PC’s were able to stop the BBEG just at the last moment with every dice throw mattering. But I of course could have fudged on my prior decision if in fact I didn’t like how things were going and no one would have been the wiser because no one knew what my decision had been or had more accurate information about the fictional state than I did. Had I wanted to, I could have picked numbers out of the air that heavily favored my BBEG and forced the chase to continue in a different sphere of play and into a different scene.

The trouble you have in these situations and the reason the temptation to Illusionism is so insidious is that you can’t ever actually be certain you are being fair and unbiased. If you are making any choice as GM at run time during a game, there is always the chance that even unconsciously you are making choices that favor your desired outcome. And indeed, my desired outcome was primarily that the be dramatic, and the numbers I choice whether by luck or skill on my part led to exactly that. Part of me was a little disappointed that the BBEG didn’t get away in that scene, but not nearly as disappointed as I would have been had I had a TPK or ultimately had an undramatic finish to the adventure. So while I had backup plans to the PC’s losing at that moment so that the story would go on, ultimately I got what I wanted.

Which raises the question, did I just do to the players what Vincent did to Fast Eddie? Did I throw the fight in order to give the players the satisfying dramatic conclusion to the adventure that it needed? I have no way of knowing for sure. I certainly tried to make on behalf of the NPC’s the rational choices based on the information they had and the resources I had given them, and I did make the fight challenging. But the fact that some illusionism was used means I don’t have objective answers. And there is the problem with it.

One counter argument to what I’m discussing is that if the players are having fun, what does it matter? If Vincent doesn’t cut Eddie in on the deal, and leaves Eddie thinking that he beat Vincent fair and square, then didn’t both sides get the experience that they wanted? And there is some measure of truth to that. It is just a game and ultimately, unlike Vincent’s “Honor Among Thieves” decision to cut his mentor in on a hustle, there isn’t really any stakes besides everyone having fun. But in my experience players aren’t stupid. I play with a lot of really smart guys, and sooner or later if I’m fudging everything they are going to figure that out, and for some of them that’s going to be like winning a chess game against a superior player and then finding out he threw the game to bolster your self-esteem.

I put a (+) on this thread not to discourage people from arguing for or against the utility of Illusionism, but to cut out discussions where people claim the whole concept doesn’t exist. These are usually arguments based on the idea that everything is illusionism and it’s all a fantasy game so none of its real. And while it’s true that none of it is real, I think it should be obvious to most people that look at the definitions I offered above that they do describe something real. It does in fact matter if the goblin has 8 hit points versus the goblin goes down to any hit that occurs after the third round versus the goblin goes down to any hit after a PC has lost 80% of their hit points and so forth. There is a real difference between “Left goes to the dragon and right goes to the magic sword” and “the first tunnel taken always goes to the magic sword and the second always goes to the dragon”. There is a real difference between “In the next room there are 4 orcs that will respond to the sounds of combat and arrive 3 rounds later” and “If the battle versus the orcs is over in less than 3 rounds, then draw an additional room accessible through a secret door and have four more orcs come through that door.”

A more interesting question, and one I may revisit in a later thread, is if a game explicitly empowers and encourages the GM to use illusionism, is it still Illusionism. That is to say, if the players know “the first tunnel taken always goes to the magic sword and the second always goes to the dragon” or “The BBEG goes down to any blow that occurs in the seventh round of combat or later”, can we say that is illusionism since it is no longer true that the players aren’t playing the game they think they are playing? And my answer here is, “Maybe”. If the GM is really transparent about the fact that it doesn’t matter if the players go left or right, or if the GM is really transparent about the fact the damage dealt in the first six rounds of combat don’t matter, then I agree that isn’t illusionism. But in my experience these systems that encourage illusionism neither encourage transparency nor are they consistent, since they will define a base game without illusionism while empowering the GM to modify that base game as he sees fit to make a better story. As such, generally it’s still illusionism.

A final interesting question might be, “Do you care?” Not every player’s aesthetics are going to be harmed by illusionism, even if the cover is pulled back and they see how it happened. In particular, players with no real commitment to Challenge, Fantasy, or Competition probably don’t care that they are just winning because the GM thinks it’s best for the story or losing because the GM thinks that’s best for the story as long as the result is a good story. You don’t care if your illusion of success is undermined if you never cared about illusion of success in the first place. As such there are tables that can happily play games that are entirely high illusionism where none of their choices really matter all that much except in the color of play.

Anyway, that's long enough for now. Interested to hearing your positive thoughts on the use of illusionism, when you are OK with it or not OK with it, how much effort you as a GM put into avoiding it, whether it bothers you, and examples of when you've used it and you thought it worked out well, or conversely examples of when it was employed that ultimately felt like failure.
 
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Jack Daniel

dice-universe.blogspot.com
Interested to see where this discussion goes.

For my part, I try very hard to avoid illusionism at all costs, chiefly for ideological/play-style reasons. It's more habit than necessity these days, but in the past, I found myself needing to resort to transparency techniques to avoid both the appearance and the temptation: I roll dice in the open whenever possible, I inform the players of enemy AC and HP values, etc. Curious about others' thoughts on this, and whether anyone else uses similar methods for similar reasons.
 

There are times when my gaming group will actively choose to go along with the illusion not because of anything related to success, story, immersion, etc. But simply because we acknowledge that the GM is a real person who is also playing the game with us. He can't anticipate everything we might come up with. He can't have infinite options prepped. There must be some allowance for the reality of the meta game.

And there are times when we, as players, put on illusions for the GM. We are genre savvy enough to recognize narrative devices like plot hooks and boss battles. But we often go along with them, giving the illusion of immersion. Because it makes his job easier.

That being said, is still very important that the illusion is believable. Things like retroactively assigning hit points really ruins the game for me if it's obvious. I put time into optimizing my character and tactics, and that sort of manipulation can completely invalidate the effort I put in.
 
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There are times when my gaming group will actively choose to go along with the illusion not because of anything related to success, story, immersion, etc. But simply because we acknowledge that the GM is a real person who is also playing the game with us. He can't anticipate everything we might come up with. He can't have infinite options prepped. There must be some allowance for the reality of the meta game.

And there are times when we, as players, put on illusions for the GM. We are genre savvy enough to recognize narrative devices like plot hooks and boss battles. But we often go along with them, giving the illusion of immersion. Because it makes his job easier.

That being said, is still very important that the illusion is believable. Things like retroactively assigning hit points really ruins the game for me if it's obvious. I put time into optimizing my character and tactics, and that sort of manipulation can completely invalidate the effort I put in.
Groups generally go along with what is needed for the adventure to happen, within reason.

If all of your group have spent a long time on optimisation and tactics, do you expect the GM to do likewise? Or do you expect a "standard" difficulty adventure where you succeed easily?

Usually the GM doesn't have the time to optimise stats and tactics for all the NPCs.

If the GM realises (too late) that they should have used a 10 HD grue instead of a 7 HD grue do you mind if the "lesser" grue suddenly seems to have more hit points than you might have expected? Or would you rather have a fair (but easy) victory?

Is it okay if the grue then turns out to have foul symbols branded into its flesh, indicating it had made a pact with some unknown entity in order to gain fiendish resilience? (Even though the GM has made that up on the spot as well.)
 

Celebrim

Legend
For my part, I try very hard to avoid illusionism at all costs, chiefly for ideological/play-style reasons.

I don't think it's possible to entirely avoid illusionism, as to do so would imply that you had accurate a priori knowledge of the entire fictional world. But I do think that you should try to avoid illusionism and limit conscious illusionism motivated by "what you the GM think should happen" to a minimum. I believe high illusionism where the fiction exists solely in response to player actions is incompatible with both "step on up" and "play to find out what happens" play.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
If the GM realises (too late) that they should have used a 10 HD grue instead of a 7 HD grue do you mind if the "lesser" grue suddenly seems to have more hit points than you might have expected? Or would you rather have a fair (but easy) victory?

I think using illusionism like this too easily turns into a crutch. If you are always thinking you can just retroactively patch a scenario, you aren't going to take the time to make them right in the first place.

And yes, as a player, I really hate Schrodinger's Stat Block. I don't mind if the DM makes a custom monster to create a more challenging situation, but if the stats can change mid combat why bother have stats in the first place? Don't try to trick me into thinking I'm playing one game when I'm actually playing a different one.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I think using illusionism like this too easily turns into a crutch. If you are always thinking you can just retroactively patch a scenario, you aren't going to take the time to make them right in the first place.

But time is very likely the resource the GM has least available.

You do get the choice to say that you don't want to play under a GM that has to make choices about their personal time. However, that's going to limit the GMs available to you.
 

JiffyPopTart

Bree-Yark
I think using illusionism like this too easily turns into a crutch. If you are always thinking you can just retroactively patch a scenario, you aren't going to take the time to make them right in the first place.

And yes, as a player, I really hate Schrodinger's Stat Block. I don't mind if the DM makes a custom monster to create a more challenging situation, but if the stats can chance mid combat why bother have stats in the first place? Don't try to trick me into thinking I'm playing one game when I'm actually playing a different one.
I view the numbers behind the game as the race track the cars are using. It provides the general path and definition of the area that the adventure is taking place in, but there are times where it makes sense to go outside the lines a little bit when it gains one an advantage.

So if a critical smite attack leaves a dragon alive with 1HP, then maybe it works a little better if that gets the kill instead of random NPC #3 punching it.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I view the numbers behind the game as the race track the cars are using. It provides the general path and definition of the area that the adventure is taking place in, but there are times where it makes sense to go outside the lines a little bit when it gains one an advantage.

So if a critical smite attack leaves a dragon alive with 1HP, then maybe it works a little better if that gets the kill instead of random NPC #3 punching it.

Maybe. But a little of this goes a long way. Maybe random NPC #3 being remembered as "the Dragon Slayer" and getting a name makes a more interesting story than the obvious one. While I understand where you are coming from, there is a real danger in using Illusionism that you just are playing to have what the GM wants to have happen, and that is going to result in both a loss of player agency and in many cases a less creative and less interesting story than if you lean into what the game is trying to tell you. I'm not saying "Don't use illusionism", but the case you cited here would IMO be insufficient justification.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
My style has moved away from games that mostly benefit from illusionism. Though, I think it can be used to great effect in adventure path style games. It's tricky though, and many GMs can struggle to pull it off well. In the end, it comes down to preference for or against illusionism. I see it as an entirely neutral aspect that can go either way depending on game and GM. For example, three paths are in front of the PCs, and all three eventually lead to the BBEG. I'm fine with that. BBEG always goes down in 7th round (as mentioned in OP) no matter what is something I'm not. YMMV.
 

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