On "Illusionism" (+)


One question I have for the group is: What are people's thought on the interaction between buying into a premise and railroading/illusionism?

A: If I start a one-shot with the premise "you are all adventurers sworn to protect the Duke", and the players accept the premise, then is it railroading to expect them to protect the Duke? Specifically if I start a scene with "You meet the next morning with the captain to discuss how to protect the Duke from the assassination", would you consider that railroading?

I don't think so, no. You've set some kind of goal of play, and the players are aware of it, so the expectation should be that play will revolve around that goal. Then you frame a scene asking for input from the players via their characters on how they will defend the duke... that seems to be asking them how they want to engage with the goal, which is not forcing them down one way.

If they're not aware of it, then I think that's poor form on the GM's part. It certainly seems to be the start of a railroad. But if not allowing some choice by the players at the very start is limited to the one instance, then I don't think we can call the entirety of play a railroad.

B: If I started a one-shot with an intro scene that has an assassin attacking the duke and you defending him and then jumped back a week, is that railroading because we're going to get that scene no matter what, or is it the players accepting the premise that we're playing to see how we get to that point?

I think this really depends on how it's handled. This is an atypical structure to an RPG, so I think it could be interesting and I think it could be done in a way that avoids railroading... but that may be tricky. It certainly lends itself to following specific paths that have already been set.

I have run a scenario like this. It begins with the PCs ready to attempt an assassination on the evil emperor, but the details of how they want to do that are selected before play... the location, the means, the collaborators, and the method. Other than the location, none of those things is confirmed in the opening scene. Then you flashback to play and find out if you are able to secure some means of overcoming mystical defenses, help of some sort toward the assassination, and how you're going to do it.

Each of those things, when played via flashback, then gave a bonus toward the attempt itself, which was resolved with one roll.

This was intentionally meant to be a short-term game of only a few sessions, and for that I think it worked and avoided being a railroad. Yes, it was leading to a known conclusion, but the chances of success and the ultimate resolution of that was up to the players.

C: If I run a campaign where I say "The Duke is a key character and will survive as the Duke no matter what", and the players like that idea, buy into it and in play support the premise; is that railroading?

I'd probably need to know more to really decide what I think about this. Is this also in a game where their goal is to prevent the duke's assassination? Or something else? Having an element that cannot change seems to lean toward railroading in a way, but it depends on how central it is to play, and how much what the players do is impacted by it.

So, as a summary question: Given that players buying into a premise is explicitly giving up some agency, does the fact that they have done so essentially make railroading (which is the GM forcing players down a route) not applicable?

I don't think so. I think there's a difference between having a game with a central premise that is agreed upon before play, and subverting/not allowing choices to impact play.

All games limit player agency to some extent. I think removing player agency is what makes something a railroad.

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Interesting concept but as presented here it seems to be a long-form railroad gently funnelling the players/PCs into a pre-set script...unless the players/PCs are free (and know it) to ignore the suggested "different choices" as and when they arise, in which case this could be quite engaging.
Well they were instant memories that popped into existence. They were free to discount them in their present decision-making process. But yeah I agree with you this example is some ways different from the long-form railroad.
Perhaps I am, as RPing to a pre-set outcome IMO kinda defeats a lot of the purpose. If I'm RPing in the Star Wars universe the last thing I want to do is play through a story we already know via setting canon. If I'm RPing a character in the court of Henry VIII I'm not there to play out history as it happened (I can watch a TV show or read a book for that), I'm there to play it out as an emergent story without regard for what happened in reality, and see what transpires.
Fair enough. I personally enjoy these, real life historic or otherwise games.
The Dragonlance Chronicles modules (I have them, just never read them) are an example of one of these.

So the PCs start out with, in effect, total amnesia, and build their past lives as play goes along? Or am I missing something here?
In a way but not really. It's a gamist mechanic.
Let's just say the full narrative of the trauma need not be established upfront in the same way that in Blades in the Dark they need not list all the equipment they brought along for the job/heist. They can use flashbacks to fill up those slots when need be.

As one leans into the mechanics for extra dice to accomplish difficult tasks they need to add to the description of the Trauma and then make a Trauma check to see if they recover some.
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This is the problem with calling everything Railroading. It meets both the "Railroading is if the GM does anything the players don't like" and "Railroading is anything the GM does without express permission of the players". Even goes as far as "anything the GM does".

That's precisely the sort of vague definitions that I'm pushing back against.

Using the "example", the players are only vaguely aware "others" are looking for the Ring. And they don't know where they are and what abilities they have. But even if the players knew for a fact that the characters are being hunted: there is nothing they can do. There characters have no powers or abilities to hide, and the world is full of just rocks and trees.

In the novel, the characters are very much aware that there are others looking for the ring, and one member of their party - the Ranger - even has past experience with wraiths and knows what abilities that they have. He has thwarted one previous attack. The party in the novel does not in fact camp atop Weathertop precisely because it's a place others are likely to go. Aragorn finds evidence that suggests Gandalf had been there before and was attacked some days prior. The party camps in small dell down the side of the mountain (on the rear of the mountain away from the road) as the safest place they can reach before nightfall. Their position is compromised by a campfire, which in the darkened night can be seen at great distance.

Like a good GM, Tolkien is keeping track behind the screen of the movements of all the Ringwraiths and all the party allies. Even if the positions aren't revealed to the party, Tolkien has marked all the enemies on the map and how far they can move in a day. The Ringwraiths have limited resources. They are on living horses that need water and food and which can't move quickly in rocky terrain and dense undergrowth. As a good GM, you should be trying not to metagame against the PCs. If the PC's have made choices that could evade their enemies, you should at least give them a chance of having done so. The hobbits don't need "hide from all foes" to evade the Ringwraiths. They just need good woodcraft and a bit of luck.

So how is it Railroading if the players are found? And there are no illusions here, not even your illusion definition.

You can tell by looking behind the screen (as it were) at the processes of play. See my discussion of the techniques for railroading for how knowing the processes of play would let you ascertain whether the players were railroaded.

Whether there is illusionism or not depends on whether the GM is pretending to the player to follow one process of play but is in fact using another. For example, Illusionism would be throwing dice behind the dice screen and pretending to consult the rules or the preparation, when in fact whatever the players did they are going to be attacked by the wraiths and you are just pretending that they had some chance of evasion.
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If no matter what the party does, the Ringwraiths find the party's campsite, attack the ringbearer and wound him, and then retreat, it's still railroading. An artful railroader just always finds some excuse why the Ringwraiths find the party. Afterall, the PC's have no idea what the limits of NPC abilities are or what they are doing off screen. That's the whole concept behind illusionism: that you can exploit the PC's limited knowledge of the situation to get what you want.
And for a storytelling DM like myself, this makes perfect sense. The Ringwraiths can sense the ring, so they home in on the PCs, forcing a confrontation. They have a weapon they are convinced can turn the ringbearer into their slave, so once they hit Frodo, further conflict is pointless and they retreat - until there is a risk that Frodo can come to Rivendell and the healing available there. If the PCs camp in a marsh, on a hill, in a ruin, whatever, the encounter is basically the same - a ruin is actually advantageous, as it had defensive terrain.

From the players perspective, this might seem unfair and to remove agency. But if there is a social contract that this is a story presented by the GM, this is not a problem. Actually, I can see how at least one of my players might actually want to NOT be informed how these events came to pass, to either figure it out themselves or to have it revealed at an appropriate point in the story.


The Ringwraiths can sense the ring, so they home in on the PCs, forcing a confrontation.

That's one thing we know for certain that they can't do. The Ringwraiths can sense that the ring is nearby or distant, and we know this because Gandalf believes it is true, and Gandalf is usually right about such things. But we can tell from how the story plays out that they cannot home in on the ring, at least not while it isn't being worn. If in fact the Ringwraiths could use the ring as a homing beacon, then there are several moments in the story where the Ringwraith should have confronted the hobbits but didn't. Once for example before Gildor arrives and chases the Ringwraith off, the Ringwraith can tell the ring is around somewhere, but can't tell that it's literally under his nose. And the second time would the attack on Bree. If the Ringwraiths could figure out which way to the ring, once they got into town and made a line toward the hobbit's room they would have sensed the ring was across the courtyard or street before even entering the room to attack the decoys in the beds. So no, the Ringwraiths can't force a confrontation.

Aragorn suspects that the Ringwraiths are going to lay an ambush at Weathertop because past Weathertop there are no wooded areas north of the road, and so they must either cross the road or travel in the open where they could be seen. So he suspects the Ringwraiths of watching the road to wait for them to cross. If this is a game has player agency, it has to have opportunities to play out differently in the books - encounters with more or fewer ringwraiths, multiple encounters, encounters at different times of the day or night, different ways of surviving or not surviving the encounter, etc. The party could either do worse or better than the story party.

From the players perspective, this might seem unfair and to remove agency. But if there is a social contract that this is a story presented by the GM, this is not a problem.

I mean sure, but is "a story presented by the GM" a game that most players want to play?


I concede this point, but the argument still holds - in the GM's world the Ringwraiths might have that ability and the PCs might not know.

Sure. The interesting thing I think underlying your observation is that it's possible for both a simulationist process of play and a story driven process of play to achieve the exact same results. Indeed, it's not hard to set up the initial conditions of the simulation such that they are likely to achieve the same results and produce the same transcript. The difference is that if you employ illusionism to achieve your story you can always achieve the same results. And the experience of play between the two is so similar that if the GM is skilled enough, the players will never detect the difference.

If we can see behind the screen though, we can tell the difference. So if we are trying to communicate to another GM how we had run the scenario (as in a published adventure) we would communicate different things depending on the technique we used.

I don't necessarily assert that one technique is better than the other. Each may have their place and some groups may have reasons for preferring one or the other. But I do know that at some level, the simulationist approach is harder to pull off. One of the ways I detect whether illusionism is being used in the game as a player is if nothing the GM wants to do ever goes wrong. At that point I start to suspect that I'm most an observer of the story and my ability to shape it is limited.

Let me ask; what can players do to help reduce the DM's need to engage in illusionism?

Buy the DM a dozen adventure books?
Go to improv classes with them?
Hold regular planning sessions on where the campaign is heading?
Help build the world?


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.

I don't see any benefit to doing this - appear to offer a choice, but then negate that. Why have apparent branching paths with the ogre down whichever one is taken? Why not a single linear path with the ogre on it?

I'm against deceiving the players. I think this is different though from standard tropes like "the PCs arrive just in time to stop the evil ritual" - these aren't necessarily deceiving the players. Though if the players deliberately metagame it like it's a video game and go back to town for a long rest thinking the scene will be suspended in time, it's ok to have the ritual complete. These days I'd probably warn the players first, though.

And of course it's fine for NPCs to seek to deceive the PCs. I think a deceitful GM is breaking the table contract, but deceitful NPCs are just doing their thing.
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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.

While I'm not tempted to fudge or engage in illusionism, I do keep dice rolls, enemy AC & other target numbers, and similar stuff open, partly to ensure there is no impression I might be fudging. I don't normally give players the enemy hp total but I tell players when monsters are bloodied/half hp, and when they're on single digit hp.

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