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Illusionism: a new look and a new approach

Started by Ron Edwards, November 11, 2002, 05:05:21 PM

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Walt Freitag

Way too much attention is being given to the extremes of variable #2, which I believe are both relatively uncommon. There is a middle range on the "illusionism/participationism" (covert/overt GM control) axis and a middle position in that range is very common.

A likely social contract at the covert extreme: the players supposedly have unfettered freedom in player-character decisions. This contract is broken by the covert illusionist practices.

[Analogy, case 1: A town government rules that since cell phone towers are ugly, none may be erected in the town. The cell phone company builds one anyway, disguising it as a tree.]

A likely social contract at the overt extreme (participationism): the players agree to follow the storyline and not resist the overt indications of what path to follow.

[Analogy, case 2: A town government agrees that even though cell phone towers are ugly, they're necessary, and allows one to be built in the town.]

A likey social contract at the middle: the players are aware that there is limited storyline flexibility that the GM can permit, in the style of GMing he's chosen to (or able to) use. The GM agrees to make the necessary steering as unobtrusive as possible, by providing in-game-world justifications for necessary constraints and by using illusionist techniques to hide the hand of GM fiat. The players agree not to push too hard against the constraints and not to try to peek through the curtain.

This is railroading, it's illusionism, and it's functional.

[Analogy, case 3: A town government rules that cell phone towers are necessary, but because they're ugly, all such towers in the town must be disguised as trees to help them blend in and be less noticeable.]

In "the middle," a GM who says "you've done enough damage to kill the enemy, but he escapes anyway because he has plot immunity" is violating that social contract. So is a player who, when the GM says, "The enemy, badly wounded, escapes into the night," points out that according to his understanding of the rules the damage should have been enough to kill him.

In "the middle," a GM who says, "You can't go searching off to the east because the adventure is in the other direction" is violating that social contract. So is a player who, when the GM says, "the way to the east is blocked by a river flooded by late spring mountain meltwater that's washed out all the bridges," begins making elaborate engineering plans to cross the river anyway, or questions what mountains the meltwater is coming from or why the're not on the map.

In the analogy, Case 1 is dysfunctional because cell phone towers disguised as trees don't look much like trees. The illusion will quickly be discovered and a dispute will occur. Case 2 is not dysfunctional in that way, but it leaves an ugly reminder of the concession in plain sight. Case 3 is actually the most functional all around. (Having no cell phone tower at all might be more functional still -- unless the locals want to use cell phones. Similarly, not using GM-oomph in play might be more functional -- unless the participants want to use modules or prepared adventures with directed story lines.)

The point is, when I'm driving through a town and I see a cell tower disguised as a tree, I don't assume I'm looking at an instance of Case 1. ("Boy, as soon as the locals figure out that that big green thing isn't really a tree, they're going to be pissed. And they must be pretty dense not to have noticed it so far.") Similarly, when I see illusionist techniques in use, I don't assume that a breaking of a social contract against the use of such techniques is going on. ("This will only work until the illusion is discovered, and then player dissatisfaction will set in.") I'm surprised that so many others do.

Being railroaded with some subtlety and finesse would be a big step up from much of the play I've experienced outside my own gaming groups. Dysfunctional, shmyshfunctional.

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere

Seth L. Blumberg

Quote from: WaltThis is railroading, it's illusionism, and it's functional.
Actually, Walt, there has historically been much acrimony over whether "railroading" and "functional" are mutually exclusive. Many people consider "railroading" to mean something like "dysfunctional use of GM Force".
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Mike Holmes

Quote from: Pale Fire
??? I don't know if you're saying that illusionist techinques are GNS-less or that they are applicable across the whole spectrum of GNS play?
I'm saying that the above priciples relate to GM technique. GNS refers to player decisions. None of the techniqes neccessarily force the certain decision making processes. Though it's hard to imagine giving up control completely to a GM and making Narrativist decisions. But these are spectrums, and as such it all works together.

As Walt points out, just as no player makes 100% Gamist decisions, no player plays 100% in any of these forms of play.

Quote from: Mike HolmesIsn't this the same as saying "Illusionist methods in Narrativist gaming is usable if not all of play is narrativist"? Just to disagree and get you to lay out a good example :)
As an example, in a game the other day, I flexibly and covertly organized the world in a forcefull manner (non-consensually, in fact), insuch a way as to present a Bang to the players (to be precise I created a backstory about a character to make them capable of taking an extreme action). At that point, I stopped using Illusionism, and let their Narrativism take control of the plot.

Quote from: Mike HolmesThen I fear that maybe I have failed to make myself clear. I'm talking about inflexible illusionism, not inflexible sim play. I too have enjoyed many games of inflexible sim, including as much CoC I've been able to participate in (I love horror).

What I'm discussing, since it might not be clear, is low flexibility illusionist gaming as a way to make GM created adventures work.

Obviously if you're running a bought adventure you have little option but to run what's written. If the players seem to be wandering out of the book an illusionist push in the right direction might be needed. This is not the same as playing a consistent low flexibility illusionist game. (But maybe we're tripping over semantics here. I see an "illusionist game" as a game that heavily relies on illusionist methods - and as such the occasional use mentioned above wouldn't be enough to call it illusionist. If one is employing a wider use of illusionist games which contains any game in which illusionist methods are ever employed, then the meaning of my words will be out of context)

Usually I see the dysfunctional illusionism appear when a GM created scenario which has the story whole story preloaded (where it could have been customized during play). What has happened here is that the GM voluntarily has chosen to ignore player input.

It is a difference between the GM and the players exploring a written scenario together (and the GM using the illusionism to keep the game "on topic") as opposed to the players exploring the GM's scenario (where the illusionism is kept "on" to avoid the players from messing up the GM's preloaded story).

And this is what I'm disagreeing with. The adventure/campaign "At the Mountains of Madness" (a favorite example of mine), is four hundred pages of absolutely prescripted plot. The text says, explicitly, 'then the characters do this; then the characters do that'. If the characters are allowed to deviate even slightly, you lose the ability to run perhaps 300 pages of adventure. There is no place where it gives you any idea what to do if the players take the characters "off the plot". It assumes that the GM will use whatever technique he needs to to ensure that the players stay straight on the track to the final climactic scene with it's pre-scripted ending.

And some people prefer this style of play. In other words, it's consensual. The players have said, well, the GM is "railroading" but I don't care. I'm just here to be the window dressing, and deliver my lines on the way to the pre-determined end.

Now, the GM can do this Overtly, or Covertly. If Overtly, it's Participationism, if it's Covertly, it's Illusionist with the plot frontloaded.

Your assumption is that the players will resent their input being ignored. But for the Consensual form, we assume that is not the case. We assume that the player will not resent it, but expect it, and enjoy it. Or rather that he'll do everything in his power to follow the GMs lead. By definition of Consensual the player has agreed to this.

Again, just because you can't persopnally see it being functional or can't see any player intentionally ceding their "right" to input, doesn't mean it can't happen. For, in fact, I've seen it work, and I've heard other accounts that detail this as a successful style of play.

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Mike Holmes

Quote from: Seth L. Blumberg
Actually, Walt, there has historically been much acrimony over whether "railroading" and "functional" are mutually exclusive. Many people consider "railroading" to mean something like "dysfunctional use of GM Force".

I agree with Seth, here, terminologically. That is, "railroading" is this sort of activity that occurs outside of the social contract to allow it. This keeps "Railroading" in it's historical context. I'd suggest Consensual Railroading as an opposite term, but I think it's just as easy to refer to Participationism and Illusionism.

That said, your points are all exactly on as usual, Walt. And I too agree that GM control is just a choice.

I also agree that failed Illusionism is very ugly, but then so is any continuity error, or anything else that disturbs internal consistency. As such Illusionist techniques might create more risk, but aren't inherently problematic.

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Walt Freitag

Okay, semantic point taken. What I meant was, it's illusionism, the storyline is front-loaded and inflexible, and its functional.

It falls midway between the following two items in Mike's breakdown:

Covert, Inflexible, Non-Consensual - Three Card Monty. Railroading. Potentially dysfunctional if/when detected.
Overt, Inflexible, Consensual - Participationist frontloading.

It's closest to this one in the breakdown:

Covert, Inflexible, Consensual - Illusionist (frontloading).

But it's less than completely consensual, at least not on the basis of consent being given for individual instances of covert manipulation; also because the social contract is usually unspoken. And it's not completely covert, because in order to fulfill their side of the contract, the players must be able to distinguish the (disguised) walls from the obstacles along the path.

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere

Mike Holmes

I see exactly what your saying Walt.

And I'm ecstatic that this seems to be, so far in it's short lifespan an effective means to discussing these sorts of play.

I'm tempted to create a dimensional model whereby you'd rate the average use of the spectra on a scale of 0 to 9.

So, what you describe might be:

Forceful 8
Covert 7
Inflexible 8
Consensual 6

-across an average of all play.

Would that be useful? Or just be too refined to serviceable?

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Seth L. Blumberg

I'd say not "too refined," but "too subjective." Though "too refined" also plays a role--does it say anything useful about an instance of play that its Flexibility is only 6, as opposed to 7?
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Ron Edwards

Hi Mike,

I'm with Seth in his judgment of your scoring idea. Perhaps just "high" and "low" would work well, especially since all three things can be achieved by applying a variety of very different techniques.


Mike Holmes

Good points. I'd add Medium, however, to describe what seems to be an intuitive position as Walt puts it. That also means that there is a theoretical, but probably never accurate None and Complete.

I can hang with it. So Illusionist play could be said to be Highly Covert. Wheras Participationist play is Highly Overt (sounds better than Lowly Overt). And Walt's described style is Midland to Highly Consensual. I can deal with that.

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Walt Freitag

Yeah, I agree with keeping the precision low. What happens with more detailed analysis is that you don't get a more precise estimate of where on the continuum the example lies; instead, each continuum breaks into a multidimensional space of its own.

Forceful: what kinds of force, how strongly and how frequently applied?
- influencing player decisions before the fact
- tampering with resolution
- Author stance used in NPC play
- Necessary fiat decisions (the weather; whether a mug to throw is within reach or not) made with forceful purpose in mind, rather than objectively or randomly
- (maybe?) shifting reality around the event to change its meaning

- overall awareness of force being used
- awareness of the specific ways force is being used
- awareness of the specific occasions in which force is being used

- flexibility about the range of desired actions entertained as possible
- flexibility about the range of resolution outcomes permitted to stand
- (maybe?) flexibility about meanings or repercussions of events conforming to the player's expectations of same, or not (for example, a low value for this form of flexibility might mean the Paladin character is likely to discover that anyone or anything he kills turns out, in retrospect, to have good qualities, because the GM is determined to present that player with moral crises)

- overall consent to force being used
- consent for the specific techniques used to apply force
- consent for the specific occasions in which force is being used

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere

Christoffer Lernö

Maybe it's just me, but I still think we need to remove subjects that obfuscate the subject here.

First we have illusionist methods (or techniques). These are quite independent of GNS. Mike Holmes pointed that out earlier:

Quote from: Mike HolmesFirst, it should be obvious that all we've been describing here is GM technique, and the extent to which players assent to it, and can note it. As such I see it having no realtinship, particularly, to any GNS mode.

On the other hand, we're also partly tracking the strategy of employing these methods. As been previously discussed the usage of these techniques can be consual/nonconsensual, non-flexible/flexible and so on.

Now there are a few thing here I feel that we're discussing in parallel.

* "When is using an illusionist strategy in accordance with social contract? And what are the problems when the social contract is broken?"

The discussion about concensual/non-consensual, railroading and so on seems to be debating this point.

* "When are illusionist strategies constuctive (aiding play) and when is it obstructive?"

This was what (seemingly only) I was discussing in my postings. My idea here is that using illusionist strategy to enforce a GM constructed story will ultimately lead to dysfunctional play.

I say so because the GM will have a big challenge keeping the players in line, and the low-flexibility of the story will have them bumping into the invisible walls time and again. This is assuming that breaking the illusion is a violation of social contract.

On the other hand, playing a scenario (such as the CoC mentioned), both the GM and the players are agreeing on playing the scenario so even if the curtain goes up by mistake, the GM is only fulfilling the social contract they agreed on. In this case there is no real risk involved.

Beyond that I see two more points of discussion:

* "What are the possible stategies for employing illusionist methods?"

As an example, consider high and low flexibility illusionism.

I feel these two have very different strategies.

Low flexibility illusionism is relying on a frontloaded story and the illusionist techniques are used to keep things "on track".

In high flexibility illusionism there is no track at all. What the GM is doing is using his illusionist techniques is for creating an illusion that there was a front-loaded story to begin with.

These are inverses of each other. In the middle point I'm seeing games that flip between either of these types during one and the same game.

Beyond that, we also have to look at the question of "what are the motivations for using these different strategies - what type of play are they trying to promote?" - but that is a question better discussed in that other GNS thread.

Anyway, my point is that it is probably a good idea to keep these matters apart and analyze them separately instead of discussing them as a whole.
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