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Author Topic: Illusionism: a new look and a new approach  (Read 29961 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: November 11, 2002, 02:05:21 PM »

Hello,

I decided to write a piece on Illusionist play from the ground up. Any material preceding this one may be considered a past influence, and I'm putting this up as a new starting point for discussion and dissection.

Three variables to understand
The way I see it now, we are talking about three independent variables, one of which is fixed.

Variable #1 (GM-oomph, the fixed one)
= how much influence the GM has influence over story-impacting decisions made by the player-characters. The techniques involved vary all over the place, but ultimately, we're talking about a group in which this happens. I shall call this influence "GM-oomph." In many groups, the Social Contract permits this activity, and Illusionist play falls into the category or mode which permits it to be exercised to some degree. Therefore, for most of this discussion, we're talking about play in which this activity is not necessarily dysfunctional.

Note to terminology junkies: obviously, "GM-oomph" is a joke term. I'm open to suggestions for it that aren't judgmental (i.e. "GM assholery" would display a certain bias, I think).

#2 (Overt/Covert)
= how overt the GM-oomph is. Does he say, "You follow that guy," or does he say, "You feel that guy may be an important part of the puzzle," or does he say, "That guy keeps looking at you" and follow it up in the next scene with, "That same guy is sitting on the park bench," or does he say, "There are four guys, which one do you want to talk to?" and leave it at that?

I like to call this the Black Curtain. If the Curtain is drawn, then the players aren't immediately clued in either (a) to what role this NPC or observation plays in the development of the storyline, if any; or (b) to what the appropriate action might be, relative to the developing story. If the Curtain is "up," then there's very little doubt about these things.

The Curtain can be raised or lowered at various points during play; it's interesting to consider the difference between play in which it begins "up" and is later "drawn," and play which proceeds exactly opposite.

#3 (Flexibility)
= how flexible the outcome is permitted to be. The GM in question might be the kind who'll do anything up to actually picking up your dice for you in order for you to talk to "that guy," or he might be the kind who's happy to let the characters miss the clue, either 'porting it to another character or letting its absence go ahead and affect the outcome.

Illusionism
OK, here we go.

Illusionism is a term for a mode of play in which the #1 variable is fixed as "GM impact on character decision-making is permitted," and the #2 variable is at the covert end of the spectrum;

Within Illusionist play, the #3 variable may fluctuate freely. A pre-planned version of Illusionism is the more fixed version (they *will* fight Dr. Bad in the underground complex and they *will* win, and he *will* get away), and Paul Elliott's original Illusionism is the more flexible version ("Wow!" say the players, "You're a genius to have made up that story and we never figured it out at the time!").

Given that the "GM-oomph" over character decision-making is present, and given that it's covert, then that's the illusion. The flexibility of the outcome may be low or high, but as long as the GM has that power to make things "go" in a certain way, and if it's covert, then Illusionism is under way. It may be a little funny to imagine that a GM can have that power and still have flexible outcomes, but in my experience, some GMs like to make those "how it turns out" decisions right there during play, as opposed to a more Roads-to-Rome preparation mode.

Illusionism is sometimes read as malicious deception, but that negative reading is misplaced. I think that a shared agreement "to be deceived" is typically involved, i.e., what I described before as the players not wanting to look behind the black curtain, and everyone being happy that the curtain is there. When that happens, Illusionism is functional, primarily because no element of the Social Contract is being threatened or violated.

When, however, the social contract (which may well never have been expressed and everyone just "knows" or more accurately hopes that it's intact) is broken regarding this issue, then we're into railroading. This can occur because *no* degree of GM-takeover of character decision-making is acceptable to one or more players (i.e. there's a disgruntled Narrativist or Gamist in the group), and then it shows up, or because the *degree* of doing so is being stretched past a tolerance level (i.e. they're all Illusionists except with different degrees of "how to do it").

I suggest that people who like Illusionist play are very good at establishing and abiding by just what degree of GM-oomph is allowable.

One person suggested to me that Illusionism includes the practice of the GM altering the world in such a way as to keep a story (or other desired outcome) on track. Examples: changing the toughness of opponents during a fight, contradicting already determined - but not established to the players - backstory for dramatic effect ("ret-conning history"), spontaneous creation of obstacles to prevent actions the GM feels will hurt the plot, etc. I identify this as a technique that may be useful in Illusionism, rather than the thing itself. Some Illusionist GMs rely only on nonverbal cues at the social level, for instance. Also, these techniques may be employed in ways that are not Illusionist at all.

Note that play-prep which does set up very fixed starting conditions ("You are FBI agents, and you are sent to investigate a murder"), but specifically does not include GM-impact on character decision-making, is not Illusionism by my terms.

Participation
If I'm not mistaken, Participation might be a good term for the other end of the second variable (overtness), in which the GM's oomph is on the table, or the Curtain is "up," and the players are good with it. I wouldn't be surprised if the #3 variable, in this case, would tend more toward the flexible end of its spectrum.

In my experience, and others' experience may well differ, this form of play is notoriously unstable over time, for two reasons. (1) Now that one person is acknowledged to be Mr. Metagame, some of the others may want to have some too (i.e. go Narrativist) which may lead to control issues. (2) Conversely, some players (particularly those who favor Sim-System) may be offended and upset at the presence of the metagame at all ("Why don't you just write a novel?").

However, a certain amount of untapped potential lies in this approach to play, and I'm very interested in seeing what some high-Director-Stance Simulationist designs out there might yield in the near future.

Remaining questions and issues
1) What game design elements facilitate successful Illusionist play? Conversely, what game design elements can clarify whether Illusionist play is not consistent with the other design goals?

2) What plain-language terms can facilitate hashing out these issues for real prior to play? (i.e., to bypass meaningless discussion of "the story's the thing" or similar)

3) Illusionism is historically suited to Simulationist/Situation play. As I currently see it, I can't imagine it doing too well in most Narrativist play (even the most Vanilla) nor in Gamist play (ditto), as long as we're talking about character-decisions of import. If anyone disagrees with me about this, can he or she shed light on the issue for me?

All comments and questions are welcome.

Best,
Ron

P.S. Many thanks to Marco and to Mike Holmes for useful discussions about it all; snippets of their input have found their way into the above material.
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jburneko
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« Reply #1 on: November 11, 2002, 02:39:11 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards

1) What game design elements facilitate successful Illusionist play?


I can name one concrete example of a mechanic that definitely facilitates illusionist play: Drama Dice in 7th Sea.  My weekend group is currently playing 7th Sea which after the first session I realized, at it's core, is an illusionist game.

Here's how it works.

1) The GM is encouraged in the game text to slighlty unbalance situations so as to almost require players to use Drama Dice to succeed in their actions.

2) Players earn drama dice by doing lots of cool dramatic stuff.  This can even be interpreted to mean the same thing it means in Sorcerer and still produce the illusionist effect.

This is the key:

3) When the player spends a Drama Die to increase chances of success that drama die goes into the GM's Drama Die pool.

Since the player's out number the GM the GM's pool will ALWAYS be larger than any single player's pool.  The net result is that at any given time the GM is guaranteed, without violating any rules, the power to make a certain situation go a specific way.  Even better, it maintains the "illusion" of player empowerment by disguising the GM's empowerment as player empowerment.

Think about it.  The player wants to succeed so they work hard to earn Drama Dice.  But when they spend the Drama Die it goes to the GM.  Granted the GM can not use that Drama Die within the same scene but it doesn't matter because if the GM is doing things "correctly" he will wrack up enough Drama Dice from the pervious scene to be able to maintain control over the current scene.  So you see, the players are working hard.  The harder they work, the more Drama Dice they earn.  To encourage them to work hard the game is kept unbalanced meaning they must spend the Drama Dice to guarantee success.  Those spent Drama Dice then go directly to empowering the GM to control any scene he/she chooses.

Interesting, no?

Jesse
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Bob McNamee
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« Reply #2 on: November 11, 2002, 02:43:19 PM »

Perhaps "GM-oomph" could be "Engineering"
how much "designing", "driving", and "creative control" they are exerting in a positive sense... it becomes "Railroading" when in violation of Social Contract...
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Bob McNamee
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Paganini
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« Reply #3 on: November 11, 2002, 05:50:29 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards

When, however, the social contract (which may well never have been expressed and everyone just "knows" or more accurately hopes that it's intact) is broken regarding this issue, then we're into railroading. This can occur because *no* degree of GM-takeover of character decision-making is acceptable to one or more players (i.e. there's a disgruntled Narrativist or Gamist in the group), and then it shows up, or because the *degree* of doing so is being stretched past a tolerance level (i.e. they're all Illusionists except with different degrees of "how to do it").


A-HEM! I don't think that comment is accurate. Illusionism, as I see it, isn't specificaly about what one prioritizes during play, and therefore can't be compared to one of the three GNS stances. I claim that a lot of Gamist play is functional illusionism. Furthermore, there are many Simulationist gamers who *hate* GM control of their players. They call it "railroading." IOW, whether or not you accept Illusionism doesn't have anything to do with your play priorities (except in the case of Narrativism, where one excludes the other). It's a question of whether or not you accept the GM moving your character around.

I think a lot of functional Gamist play is Illusionist. I know it's not definitive, but the fact is a lot of Gamist play deals with effectiveness on a meta-game level. (I.e., D&D experience points.) IME, a lot of Gamist players don't care how much the GM pushes them around, as long as he doesn't interfere with the elements requiring their own personal skill. IOW, they don't care how contrived the path to the fight is, as long as they get to exercise tactical control when the fight gets going. I see this as functional Gamist Illusionism. GM-Oomph is clearly defined as "do whatever you want, as long as you don't keep the players from exercising skill."

At the same time, these Gamists will claim total dedication to story (hehe) saying that a "good story" is what makes role-playing cool. And they happily look to their GM to retrofit one for them.
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Bob McNamee
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« Reply #4 on: November 11, 2002, 05:50:49 PM »

Regarding #3
I could see Gamist play in Illusionism, with the primary 'competition' being between the players (as opposed to GM).
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Bob McNamee
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: November 11, 2002, 08:06:05 PM »

Hi Nathan,

Perhaps you missed my #3 "further discussion" point in your hurry to nail a phrase that caught your eye. As you can see, I acknowledge that this issue is debatable.

The trouble is that you're sticking with the older approach to Illusionism which was fixated on where "the story" comes from. That's what was gumming up a lot of dialogue among me, Mike H, and Marco, until we realized that it was a red herring. In my new breakdown, "story" is absent. I do not specify what the GM is making player-character-decisions about. All I care about is whether it's important to play.

Given my current thinking about your Gamist proposal, I would maintain that the GM-decisions about "story" are basically scene framing from a Gamist standpoint, relative to the "money shot" scenes of Gamist "test" or competition*, and not Illusionist at all. "Yeah, get us there," would be the player response.

Best,
Ron

P.S. Note to Gareth Martin: I haven't forgotten you regarding this point.
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Paganini
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« Reply #6 on: November 11, 2002, 08:39:14 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards

Perhaps you missed my #3 "further discussion" point in your hurry to nail a phrase that caught your eye. As you can see, I acknowledge that this issue is debatable.


I saw, and made haste to debate. ;)

Quote

Given my current thinking about your Gamist proposal, I would maintain that the GM-decisions about "story" are basically scene framing from a Gamist standpoint, relative to the "money shot" scenes of Gamist "test" or competition*, and not Illusionist at all. "Yeah, get us there," would be the player response.


Hmm. Interesting idea. This sort of sequence does not match what I think of as typical scene framing.

Scene framing is "You're gathered together at the in when a hooded stranger comes up to you and asks you to kill all the kobolds in the mountains."

Illusionism is when the characters leave the bar, and end up in the mountains killing kobolds, regardless.
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #7 on: November 11, 2002, 09:47:44 PM »

Not too long ago I penned a piece entitled http://www.gamingoutpost.com/GL/index.cfm?action=ShowProduct&CategoryID=54411&ProductID=66383&publisherid=54849">Ephemeral Illusion in my Game Ideas Unlimited series. (Note: the series is part of the Gaming Outpost subscriber section; this link will reach the entry page for the article, but if you have not recently paid your dollar you won't be able to access the article, or others in the series.) The issue I raised there is one worth raising here: is it possible to design a game which is overtly illusionist? I am of the tentative opinion that this is not possible in today's game world; or rather, that any game so designed would not find an audience.

The problem, as I see it, lies in what I perceive as a fundamental requirement of illusionism: the players do not realize that they are not in control. I've played in illusionist games; as soon as players started to see the through the illusion, it started to develop serious cracks. One player quit outright because he overheard the referee talking to another player about what was "going to happen" in a situation he was playing. Gradually we all realized that nothing we chose made any difference to play. He was telling a story, probably making it up as he went along, and using the trappings of a role playing game to keep his audience involved and give us the feeling that we were contributing to the story.

Perhaps that's harsh. We probably gave him ideas, forced him to find ways to incorporate our actions into his story. But he was masterful at manipulating players into doing what he wanted and making us feel as if we'd chosen, so it was very difficult to determine when, if ever, we were creating the story.

I'm not opposed to illusionism as a referee technique. Other articles in the series elucidate ways to run games which are very much in that realm:
    [*]http://www.gamingoutpost.com/content/index.cfm?action=article&articleid=565&login=">Invisible Coins suggested how to use die rolls as a way to determine what outcome you want, not how it comes out.
    [*]Who? talked about bringing information about player characters into the game at critical moments which the players did not know.
    [*]http://www.gamingoutpost.com/content/index.cfm?action=article&articleid=613&login=">Left or Right? was about taking away from the players the decisions that shouldn't matter, such as by making whatever road they choose be the one that leads where you wanted them to go.
    [*]http://www.gamingoutpost.com/GL/index.cfm?action=ShowProduct&CategoryID=54411&ProductID=62800&publisherid=54849">Possibilities considered the use of open-ended scenarios, in which the truth is decided in response to player choices and desires rather than as part of the materials.[/list:u]
    All these are related to illusionism to some degree, and I use them and encourage others to do so. But my problem arises when I come to the level of designing a game which is avowedly illusionist. And herein lies the problem. Every game that is written and published, no matter how obscurely, becomes known and discussed on the Internet. So let us suppose I write Illusion, a game which uses such illusionist techniques, and I publish it. As soon as someone gets players interested, those players are going to start investigating the game. At least one of them is going to encounter someone who says, "Isn't that the game that is entirely illusionism, where the referee runs the whole thing but the game makes the players feel like they're involved?" Bang! The entire game collapses at that instant, because illusionism requires as part of its premise that the players are unaware it is happening. In every situation in which I advocate illusionism, I emphasize that you can't do it all the time; you can only do it sparingly, judiciously. If it is discovered that your games are entirely a matter of you creating the story and making the players feel as if they contributed when they really had no control of events whatsoever, the game ends, often with bad feelings on the part of the players.

    Note that we're not discussing participationism, in which the players are conscious that their decisions have little or no impact on outcomes. This problem applies strictly to games in which the referee is actively keeping the players "in the dark". If the rules exist, someone will read them. If it is explicit in the rules that that is what is happening, from then on they will be able to clearly see the man behind the curtain, and the puppets are no longer impressive.

    Please don't take this as a rant; I'm much more interested in whether there is a way around this than in proving it can't be done. The observation above concerning drama dice in 7th Sea is intriguing because it may well be that the mechanic supports and encourages illusionism implicitly, but neither the referee nor the players are explicitly aware of it. Such a game might work for an extended period (depending on how latent the features are, that is, how long will it take for the players to realize just how stacked the deck really is); if it's abused, eventually the players will realize it, and then you have the problem that they think the game broken for giving too much power to the referee, not that they perceive it as illusionism.

    Ideas? I seem to recall that Pale Fire (?) was working on an illusionist system; has he got solutions to this?


    --M. J. Young
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    contracycle
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    « Reply #8 on: November 12, 2002, 02:16:22 AM »

    [bangs head on desk]

    And no, this is not about the competition issue.

    MJ says:

    Quote

    As soon as someone gets players interested, those players are going to start investigating the game. At least one of them is going to encounter someone who says, "Isn't that the game that is entirely illusionism, where the referee runs the whole thing but the game makes the players feel like they're involved?" Bang! The entire game collapses at that instant, because illusionism requires as part of its premise that the players are unaware it is happening


    Imagine you went to see a stage magician.  Are you, at any moment UNWAWARE that the "magic" you are seeing is an illusion?  No.  Does this compromise your enjoyment  of the performance?  No (well not for most, self selecting and all).  But, at no point is the audience aware of WHICH BIT or HOW the illusion was executed; thus, the Illusion remains mysterious, and intriguing even though everyone knows it was a trick.  The fact that it was a trick does not undermine its value, because the very fact a trick could produce that result is itself interesting.

    "railroading" in Illusionism is, IMO, like a card force.  Yes absolutely, I have pre-arranged which card you are going to pick.  I'm going to distract your attention from the execution of the trick.  I'm going to give you a line of patter that thoroughly obfuscates what it is I am doing and thinking and paying attention to.  But, at no point do I aver assert that I have real magick POWAH!  Therefore, the fact that the audience is aware that it is a trick is not damaging to the practice of the illusion; I have not told a porky pie.  Even if they know I forced a card on them, they can have fun speculating on how that happened (which is exactly what the misdirection is for).

    Paganini wrote:
    Quote

    Illusionism is when the characters leave the bar, and end up in the mountains killing kobolds, regardless.


    Yes but: done properly, you should not be able to detect that fracture line; the kobolds should appear to be a natural feature of the setting, and the decision to fight them your own and natural.  In exactly the same way that you "freely" chose the Queen of Spades from my perfectly normal deck (which you yourself examined).

    Quote

    In every situation in which I advocate illusionism, I emphasize that you can't do it all the time; you can only do it sparingly, judiciously. If it is discovered that your games are entirely a matter of you creating the story and making the players feel as if they contributed when they really had no control of events whatsoever, the game ends, often with bad feelings on the part of the players.


    Why?  Does this not presuppose that the players value the creation of story - which may well not be the case if, as is common for illusionist games, the player proclivities are Gamist and Sim.  And furthermore, I really hate this expression of "feel as if they contributed"; quite clearly, they DID contribute in a real and tangible manner.  Even if it were my desire to "write a story" - which I deny - I cannot write dialogue; the "story" is only potential until ACTUALLY executed there at the gaming table.  


    Lastly, Ron asks:
    Quote

    2) What plain-language terms can facilitate hashing out these issues for real prior to play? (i.e., to bypass meaningless discussion of "the story's the thing" or similar)


    I would suggest raiding the lexicons of stage magicians and con-artists.  Really.
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    Bob McNamee
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    « Reply #9 on: November 12, 2002, 07:42:43 AM »

    This magician description would match up well with when Illusionism breaks down...

    When you can see how the effects are done (at the moment they are done poorly) it falls apart ... its not a good show.
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    Bob McNamee
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    Bob McNamee
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    « Reply #10 on: November 12, 2002, 07:45:10 AM »

    This magician description would match up well with when Illusionism breaks down...

    When you can see how the effects are done (at the moment they are done poorly) it falls apart ... its not a good show.
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    Bob McNamee
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    Paganini
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    « Reply #11 on: November 12, 2002, 08:06:31 AM »

    Hey, watch where you're pointing that thing, Bob!

    I second the motion for using stage magician terminology for Illusionism. Fits very well.

    Gareth: I don't disagree with you about the Kobolds. The point I was making is that functional Gamist Illusionism exists.
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    Ron Edwards
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    « Reply #12 on: November 12, 2002, 08:14:39 AM »

    Hi Gareth,

    I'm pretty sure that M.J.'s point is well-addressed by your post - no need, I think, for head-banging, perhaps. He's a reasonable guy.

    It all comes down to exactly the "willingness not to look" regarding the Black Curtain - after all, the chance to see past it (perhaps as it swirls open briefly, due to a mis-timed GM moment) is diminished if you're not looking in the first place.

    The real point is whether an explicit Social Contract not to look is itself "destroying the Illusion." In my opinion, it does not have to, and I'd appreciate it if people would consider this possiblity carefully before going on about "of course it would." Gareth's right - we have a whole culture of terms and points that would seem entirely appropriate.

    People who attend and enjoy a David Copperfield performance have entered into a Social Contract not to look. People who get conned by a street Three Card Monte expert have entered into a Social Contract ("this is a fair game"); any con artist will tell you that the whole point is to get that Contract established first, and the pigeon is 90% bagged.

    How can Illusionist role-playing be more like the above-board Copperfield situation and not like the wholly deceptive/manipulative Three Card Monte situation? If that question can be answered satisfactorily, then we have something to work with regarding game design.

    Best,
    Ron
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    Marco
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    « Reply #13 on: November 12, 2002, 08:34:47 AM »

    A few thoughts:

    1. If the "curtain is up" then I don't think Illusionism is a good term for what's going on (the GM interfering with characters).

    2. "(i.e. there's a disgruntled Narrativist or Gamist in the group)" I see no reason a standard Simulationist player wouldn't object to Illusionism. I see no reason a Gamist would, especially if the GM-control wasn't surrounding decidedly gamist activities.

    3. This type of play is notoriously rewarding in my experience and others (I still don't like the warning--I suggest that similar disclaimers could be made for anything, why not just say "hey, I tried this--for years I liked it and I don't like it any more--when I play I want more control" or whatever).

    4. For me, Illusionism is about the GM meddling with reality behind the scenes. Any time a player opens a door and the GM says what's there, if the GM is internally making the choice based on what he wants to be there rather than what he had a) decided was there or b) what logically might be there--and that is done with intent to keep a story on track, it is, IMO Illusionism.

    In the last good Narrativist game you (any reader) played in, did the GM describe what was behind a door? If he/she did then it could have been illusionist play--and it would've worked just fine.

    The requirement for the GM impacting player decisions is, IMO, a moot point. Any word out of the GM's mouth can impact a player decision. Any time a character encounters an obstacle that another person has any domain over, it's effecting the story.

    The GM mandating that the villain get away is somethign of a straw-man. If the GM can't find an organic (meaning naturally occurring to the known story-line), logical method of ensuring escape--and the GM forces it anyway, then whatever else it may be, it's obvious (and, IMO, probably lazy).

    It's like a stage magician fumbling. The players might be cool with it. The GM might be cool with it--but it's not an illusion of any sort.

    -Marco
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    Mike Holmes
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    « Reply #14 on: November 12, 2002, 08:46:18 AM »

    I think number two are already well labeled. The Overt/Covert thing really is a question of whether or not you are using Illusion. If not, then magician's terms would not apply. That said, some magician's tricks are good because of their flexibility. The result varies on the input but is mystifying because it responds so well to the variables. OTOH, GM-Oomph could be referred to as Force, as in the magician's term that refers to being able to control the outcome. So I advocate leaving the other terms, and using Force for term one.

    Interestingly, one could be forceful, yet flexible. They are not anti-thetical.

    As to how you get to the Illusionist Show, and away from the Three Card Monty, I suggest that the obvious method is via social contract. You just say before the show that you are going to be performing Illusions and ask if that's OK. This can probably be done informally (and almost certainly is in most cases of actual use), though this is obviously more likely to be problematic.

    Other methods would include my theoretical Illusionist system where the plaers were aware that the GM was allowed to fudge certain otherwise deterministic things. By agreeing to play by these open rules one forms the same social contract as above.

    I'm sure there are other potential ways.

    Mike
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