On the Illusionism

I apologize in advance for this topical post. I really wanted to avoid doing this, but I have something game related to add, which means I'm going to do it, in spite of my aversion to bandwagons and the jumping on thereof. The main point is past the next few bits of background, feel free to skip down to it, if you're conversant in the current discussion.

There was an excellent post here, over at The Mule Abides about illusionism in the context of wandering monsters. I had no real reply to it then, except for two things.

A) The post is excellent enough that I added it to my On the OSR Required Reading List post. Seriously, it's that good. Secondly I posted about it in the comments to let Tavis know that I had. This comment was promptly deleted, or perhaps held up by the spam filter. Is it spam? Perhaps it was. My ego will recover from his desire to keep the comments focused on the discussion over the post.

B) I love this quote:
Even though at one level we know that some of these events are the result of random rolls on a chart, at another level we treat the dice as oracles that reveal this other world.
I have nothing to add to his post because it's succinct and true.

However Dreams in the Lich House has written a 2 part article, here and here. Illusionism is discussed here and here.

Basically, it's the 'wizard switch' given often as advice to new DM's, i.e. There is a lever. If you pull the lever, it activates the trap, if you don't pull the lever, it doesn't disarm the trap. Either way this trap is going off because I spent an hour making it.

Beedo postulates the all too common occurrence in any sort of Space Structure or Line Structure. He describes an environment where everything is frozen until the PC's arrive. It doesn't matter how long it takes them to reach that certain area of the sandbox, the event is static and triggered on the event of the PC's arrival.

His post is also tangentially talks about ignored plot hooks, and how it's textbook illusionism to just move the encounter over to where the PC's are.

I think illusionism is abhorrent in both D&D style games, AND story based, plot arc games.

Zack S made an offhand comment about how he would give his players four options, and if they choose to do a fifth, he would not pallet swap a previous encounter but come up with something new for them to do. I feel this is important, as in a key component to the empowerment of the players, and critical to the enjoyment and long term health of the game.

Players must not just believe that actions have consequences, but they actually must have them, not just the illusion of them.

Beedo writes about dangling plot hooks and the players not reacting to them right away. This is an example of how Time Structure is used. If a person is actively pursuing a goal, then they should achieve realistic progress towards that goal. A person, in this case, referring to the entity at the ignored plot hook.

The initial thing that prompted me to reply, is that I have an actual play example. My last long campaign was a wilderness sandbox set up as a colony on foreign shores. They were given the information that the last colony was destroyed. They spent almost a year of game time, exploring the area, visiting different sites, etc. It was nearly 8 months game time till they visited the site of the previous destroyed colony, and they did no research or showed no interest in tracking down any of the leads discovered within that session.

They were astoundingly bothered by the fact that while they were off exploring some site, the colony was wiped off the map the same way the first had been. This was a natural consequence of their choice to not follow up on a plot thread. The effect it had was powerful, upsetting to many of the players. Someone at some point said something akin to "How could we have done anything to stop this?!" as an argumentation towards it being unfair. Cleric spells, locating a sage, showing the evidence to someone in town, or trying to make contact with the native cultures were presented as options in response. The main issue was, the party didn't make it a priority.

This is better than fine, it's wonderful. What they did make a priority was thoroughly getting a lay of the surrounding land and finding interesting environments to find magic and treasure. They were very successful at this. This is the best type of play because player choice matters. This is identifiable as good play, because of the emotional reactions of the players.

They felt bad, because those city people had been captured by shaugin. The reason they felt bad is because they realized that it was not as a direct result of their choice to do something, but a direct result of their choice to not do something.


  1. I remember playing through an adventure way back in my early D&D days when party, off on a quest to help some fort against some hordes of orcs or something, decided to go off into the forest as a short cut and got distracted by other stuff... by the time we got to the fort, it had been destroyed!

    I like this style of play. I've used both in my games, sometimes things only happen when the party gets there or takes an interest, other times things happen on a time scale and if the party doesn't follow leads, thre are consequences.

    I think both can work, but really depends on the type of game you play and your players.

  2. Yes, in the adventure design posts I cover both styles. I agree 100% that they are both valid styles of play, which you can see in the Line, Space, and Time structure articles.

    Illusionism however (which is a separate thing) is, in my humble opinion, emphatically not ok.

  3. Good post.

    I do think your example and Beedo's original one are two very different situations, though.

    In "The Wizard's Lever" PCs are asked to make a binary decision which they have ever reason to believe will have very different results--something will happen/something will not happen. Having one certain outcome emerge from either decision is dickish and possible "illusionism."

    In Beedo's example PCs choose destination A or B. If bandit's attack no matter which choice, you haven't invalidated they're choice--they still get to arrive at the destination they chose. There is no illusionism, or at least not the same sort as your example. The bandits are an incidentally to the choice, not a direct result of it.

    In your example the PCs can't avoid the outcome of a bad choice and that's wrong; in Beedo's the PCs have an adventure. That ain't.

    Now, if you assured PCs one option was bandit-free--and put the bandits on the option they chose after they chose, you'd have a point.

  4. Again, I agree. The post above is definitely talking about two different things.

    The first part is a bunch of background and basic stuff about illusionism, including links and etc. The lever is just an example of it.

    The second is addressing specifically what beedo is talking about from my experiences where the players choose not to do something and there was a consequence to it (like in his example of vlad raising zombies by the time the players finally reached him).

    Personally, I feel that the bandits attacking regardless of which way the players go /if decided ahead of time/ is illusionism. If it's a random encounter that's rolled, then it is not.

  5. To each his own, of course. :)

    I guess I'd have to ask do you agree that your offered example and Beedo's example are two very different situations?

    My understanding of illusionism is that its wresting story control from the player's and giving it only to the GM. The example in question doesn't do that--the player's chose their destination and whatever awaits them there--which surely is a fundamental a different set of events than going to place B. The GM participated in the plot by providing an encounter, but in no way was player choice diminished. Certainly not to a degree that its reasonable to use a word like "abhorrent," I don't think.

  6. Again, I think we are saying the same thing, only apparently I've communicated my examples in a crossed up manner.

    First, the lever example has nothing to do with what Beedo wrote - it is simply an illustrative example of illusionism.

    As far as the bandits go - I haven't postulated any sort of example for that comment. But again, I feel that if the party *cannot* *avoid* the bandit encounter, then that is an example of illusionism.

    The bandits either exist in a physical place and time in the world where players will encounter them, or they do not and are only encountered when the GM decrees. This GM deciding that they fight the bandits _no matter which option they choose_ seems to me to be the very definition of illusionism.

    Their decision to go to A or B was diminished because they will encounter the bandits either way. Just because their are different things at the end of the journey doesn't mean that their agency wasn't removed in relation to the bandit encounter.

  7. I've been thinking about this since it's come up, and I'm gonna be honest. I don't think it really matters. As a player I want a good time. If I go left and encounter some bandits and its fun, I don't care if I'd have encountered the bandits going right.

    As a DM if I think that my players will enjoy an encounter I've written, I'll probably find a way for them to run into it eventually.

  8. The GM deciding that they fight the bandits _no matter which option they choose_ seems to me to be the very definition of illusionism.

    I agree with that example defining Illusionism - I aspire to avoid playing the shell game as much as possible. It's not *always* possible to live up to the ideal of a pure sandbox.

  9. Isn't simply the case that there are bandits everywhere, but it's not worth writing up two different bands according to which way the PCs go when you know that only one will get used?

  10. No, that is clearly and explicitly not the case.

    From the original article:
    "You place the bandit ambush on the west road out of town, where everyone knows some bandits lurk. . . there are three roads out of town, and although the party indicated last week they were probably heading west, this week, they decide to head towards the big city. They take the east road instead. Dingle!"

    So, since the party was given explicit information that the bandits are west, and they didn't go west, then moving the bandits to the east is removing player agency.

  11. Second post in that series is up now. Let me know if you have problems where a comment doesn't show up; I searched our spam filter w/o avail, and have had problems commenting over here to say we sure didn't do anything to intentionally delete your comment!
    - Tavis


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...