On a Masterwork Illusion

I've used illusionism in games before -- I've run a game built on the very ideal of that.

It was so entertaining that at one point we had upwards of 10 people showing up to watch.

It was a different time.

The real question is how did it work?

Why was it successful?

Is there anything from this that can be used or adapted for use in an illusion-free high-agency game?

Might some of the techniques be useful in a game that allows players to actually influence it?

Here is how this would normally work. The games took place within a single city. The city was a Space Structure. A real world map was used. Usually I ran the game in the city we actually resided in. The characters had their own goals and were within a Power Structure, containing all the relevant NPC's and factions.

During the week, I would come up with the idea for three or four scenes.

And then, during the game, no matter what the players did, those scenes would happen. Often, if I needed some particular behavior from the players, or perhaps them to visit a specific location, I would spend the preparatory time figuring out how to manipulate them to that location. I would design increasingly manipulative scenarios to cause them to accomplish the tasks I needed to set up the scene.

I'm a much different person today.

There are some things to note:
  • I would design the scenes in such a way that they were very easy to trigger. They would rely as little as possible on player choice.
  • I would start with the most subtle manipulation. It was not heavy-handed, just the small things I required were mentioned as reasonable options.

The downside? No matter what the players did, these scenes would occur. They could not avoid them or stop them. At best they could cause the scene to be delayed.

I had 'my story' and I was going to tell it.

Was it as bad as all that? No. Each session started in a 'virtual sandbox'. ("It is evening, you awake. What do you do?") And they would go about trying to accomplish their goals. Within the scenes themselves they would do anything they wished. But much like a quick-time events in video games, the choices in scenes were simplistic, telegraphed, and of minimal consequence to the final result of the story.

There were two reasons this design functioned as well as it did.
  1. Theatrics: The game was designed around being entertaining. NPC's were interesting, and portrayed to break stereotypes. Those involved were encouraged to play up their thespian skills. Character voices, atmosphere, ritual, and setting were of paramount importance. 
  2. Illusionism: The game was designed on two levels. The players were all trying to accomplish their own goals. These goals were only tangentally associated with the actual overarching 'story' that was being told.
Even though it worked, it lacks the virtues of my experiences in the last five years. Here are the problems.

It was entertaining in the same sense that a movie or book was entertaining. It was fun to experience. Sometimes. Because it was a game that actually involved physical people, sometimes people were tired, unmotivated, or generally uncreative. This meant, as much as the atmosphere and setting were enjoyable there were long periods where things might be boring and uninteresting.

This is generally ok if there are other things involved that are engaging. But if this is the primary activity and source of entertainment, then 'boring and uninteresting' are serious problems.

A description, no matter how long, detailed, engaging or entertaining cannot replace engagement. It can make a good thing better, but it cannot make a bad thing good.

{Long description of creepy forest, history of the forgotten keep, and the approach to the keep}
"What do you do adventurer?"
"I explore the keep!"
"Roll"
"16"
"You are victorious!" {Long description of the victory}

This is just an example to show that description does not make an unengaging roll any more engaging. If the system is 'chunked poorly' no amount of fancy presentation will make it fun.

You cannot, ahem, polish the proverbial turd.

As for the illusionism? The time spent during character creation designing their background and creating their character and their character's goals was only as useful to me as it allowed me to have tools and hooks to insert them into my plot.

Most of the actual game-play between my scenes was very reminiscent of OSR play. Players would try to accomplish their goals and problems would appear in their way. They had freedom within this structure only as it didn't actually interfere with the overarching story.

When they did try to affect the outcome of the story, it was a brick wall and magician's switch apocalypse. Why? It had to be.

I wasn't a player in this game so I can't speak to 'if it was worth it or not'.

I can say we had fun then. I can also say that my current players (some of whom are the same) appear to be much more engaged in the current game.

After all, it's one where they can smash the head of the boss in and be rewarded for it rather than punished.

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