On How an Illusion Can Rob Your Game of Fun

You think you're saving effort. You're not. You think you're making things more 'fun' for the players, but really, you're ruining their fun.

Sometimes you will see a children's cartoon, where they will take the toy and push the button that shoots the missile or fist or something, and they will be so happy this occurs that they will stop playing and give each other a high five.

YOUR PRECIOUS OGRE ENCOUNTER WILL NOT CAUSE YOUR PLAYERS TO DO THAT. If you force them into an encounter—even if they are unaware of the fact that they are being forced, eventually they will grow to resent you. And it will not be long before they become aware.

This is in response to an article by Beedo over at the excellent Dreams in the Lich House

First - what in the hell are we talking about? Illusionism is defined as being presented with a choice that doesn't matter. Beedo's current example are three groves that the players can explore in any order. Beedo provides two examples, one in which SCRIPTO-DM assigns content before the players encounter it, and another in which IMPROV-DM creates encounters (such as a cool ogre encounter) and leaves them unassigned. Then, no matter which grove the players enter, they have his ogre encounter.

What's wrong with making the ogre encounter being the first one the PC's select?

Let's look at some of the comments, and why they do impact agency, and therefore fun.
"By deciding at game time that the MacGuffin is not in Wood C, and the Ogre is there instead, has he *actually* violated player agency?  Player will or choice has not been thwarted.  They wanted to go to the woods, and Lo! - they are in the woods.  And yet objectively he has preordained a game result." - Beedo
Player choice has been thwarted, because the players were presented with a meaningless choice. Does it matter if they know the choice was meaningless or not? If the players have no hint of where the ogre is does it rob them of agency?

It matters for these reasons.
  • If you always pre-ordain 'your precious encounter' then the players never have the experience of choosing correctly and skipping right to the end (which is fun for them).
  • The flaw of the Quantum Ogre is that, if you have a party who plays smart, he won't be quantum long before you enter the woods, and then you've wasted time by not assigning him to a location already or you become the jerk DM where ESP doesn't work, the ground doesn't hold tracks, and if you try and teleport - suddenly anti-magic fields everywhere.
Palette Shifting

Let's take just one moment and talk about palette shifting. There is some misunderstanding of what is meant by this term.
A palette shift is when the players become aware of an encounter, and when making a choice to avoid that encounter, the DM re-skins (changes the 'color palette') the encounter and has them encounter it anyway.
 This can be as simple as the bandit encounter (Bandits to the east - we go west! ack, bandits here too!), or as complex as totally different monsters who lead you to exactly the same place. This can be used to either negate the players choice (You're going to fight my special bandits anyway!) or to negate player freedom (It doesn't matter what you do, you will meet the cultists of Bane!).

Pre-scripting 12 encounter lairs, and randomly generating which is in a hex that was unknown is *not* palette shifting. Having undefined "white space" in a campaign, and dynamically filling it with pre-generated content later is not palette shifting.

Sandbox Triangle

Fast, good, and cheap, pick 2 in the design and management of a sandbox doesn't apply. 

It's based on a fallacy, one of wasted effort. There is no 'effort/detail/freedom' sandbox triangle in the OSR, and the postulation of one is a lie! Though it's an easily believable one. The idea is that work is 'wasted', that somehow if you put a lot of detail into areas that the players don't visit you will be having time you've spent preparing wasted.

Being creative does not, in fact, make you less creative. The more you create, the more your output increases! Let's ignore that there's enough free material on the web to stock 1 millarn over 9000 hexes and dungeons with no more effort than hitting print, not to mention random tables, and point out that if you can't get enough detail to give the players freedom because it takes too much effort then you are expanding the wrong kind of effort.

How long is a gaming session? 4-8 hours? I bet most of us are lucky to push 4 hours in a session. How much can be done in that time at the table? What will you need? 1 million areas? 5 areas? It just isn't enough time to go through that many options. Let's assume you don't know where your players will go. How many options do they need? 3? 5? Let's assume 6 (one for each hex face). So what do you need to come up with?
  • six general encounters for hexes, 
  • a random encounter table, and 
  • a table of random stuff if they reject all six of your hooks. 
Can you not create the basics of that in under an hour? All that work you 'wasted' in your last campaign—well it's a new campaign, can't you find a place to stick it in?
"The idea being, the Dungeon Master built a forest village down the east road; when the group goes down the west road instead, and visits a new forest village, go ahead and use the (never visited) east village instead. Because no information has been spoiled, the players don't know the difference, and the DM doesn't waste any work. It's compelling if pulled off well, but changes many of my ideas about prepping for the sandbox." -Beedo
Agency Theft

What's really terrible about the destruction of player agency in the above examples is the implicit thought that 'your encounter that's sooo cool' is what makes Dungeons and Dragons fun. It's not. It's getting in that Dispel Evil on Strahd that slays him outright. It's getting that critical on that dragon while it's talking shit. It's taking down that frost giant at first level—not a fsking precious encounter.

It's when through luck, chance, or skill, something amazing and heroic happens; Removing you from the real world and giving a rare glimpse with a few close friends into a realm where something truly unique and heroic has happened that the rest of the world will never see. 

How can your little pre-planned scripted encounter compare to that?

Edit: The publication date has been changed for proper tag display. The original publication date was 9/11/11
This content is available in print at Lulu and digitally from DTRPG.

On Slaying the Quantum Ogre

All this rhodmontade over agency has a purpose!

Let's learn how to slay the Quantum Ogre.

How do we give players agency—how do we let their choices have the effects that relate to the intents of that choice? The primary rule is stay true to your role as arbiter and facilitator of player choice.


This is the key to player agency, since it informs their choice. Without information, they cannot make a choice with intent. This is important in many ways, in many situations. You must study this.

Some examples
  • When dropping hints, drop them three times.
  • When the players are discussing things, and they have misunderstood something or your intent, correct them.
  • When the players tell you what they are doing, also ask them what they want (why they are doing it) and make sure that their choice matches their goal. Pacing is difficult enough to maintain—if the players want to find treasure, let them know before they search an abandoned building for six hours of play time that there's not much treasure there. Tell them where to go to get the gameplay they want. (Yes, but. . .)
  • Let them know the stakes. Make sure you are honest with them about the consequences, even if the non-player character's are lying to them!* (What's in it for me. . .)
  • If you told them, and more than 30 seconds have passed, you may tell them again. (Remember. . . )
  • If the players ask a question, try to answer what they want to know. (No, but. . .)
  • When dealing with authentic hidden information (how a trick or trap works), give them some sign of all irrevocable effects (Trick/Trap agency)
  • Don't give the players blind choices. Always give some sort of information with the choice. A choice with no information to distinguish between the options isn't any sort of choice at all.
* Lots of confusion over this. This level of explicitness applies to letting them know the stakes—what does each option we may engage in tonight involve? What activities as people will these options allow us to engage in? When your friends are making that decision, you should not allow them to end up doing something for six hours they do not want to do, because of authentic uncertainty in the game world.
    This is a sword to player agency, since it empowers their choice. Without freedom, they are unable to make a choice with effects relating to their intent. This is critical since without choice, there is no game. (i.e. games are collections of interesting choices).
    • The outcome of a situation in play should never be predetermined—one cannot decide ahead of time how the choice a player makes will play out, otherwise the player has no input and is therefore not engaged.
    • Allow things to happen that have no bearing on the players or their interests. If everything in the world revolves around the players, how can they be free? More to the point, how can they ever see the effects (or lack thereof) without a living breathing world?
    • One cannot dictate the actions of the player characters! Their control over their characters is sacrosanct territory, with only rare exceptions (magical control etc.)
    • The freedom to ignore your plot hooks/adventure thread/situation is critical. Next time you play, look around you—those are actual human beings, not fleshy shells destined to act out what happens next in your fantasy. If they enter your rioting city, and decide to leave, let them get the hell out of there if they wish. . . just remember to let them experience the consequences of their agency.
    • The invisible wall is anathema. Say Yes. . . or Say Yes, But. . . If you tell the players they can do anything and then continue to tell them no and no and no, well, they can't really do anything, can they?[1]
    • This is ironic, but in order to encourage freedom, you have to limit options. You have to say, here are five tasks, so they can make a meaningful choice between the five—or reject them and forge their own. If you were to tell them "do anything you want" the excessive freedom limits their agency by making their choices meaningless.

    [1] I blame America and its obsession with freedom on this dishonesty. The fact is, you can't do anything you want, and not only is it so important for us to believe we can that we constantly tell ourselves and our children that, but it causes massive social dysfunction (a lack of concern about behavior on community) and personal distress when faced with this reality.

    Edit: The publication date was changed for appropriate tag display. The original publication date was 9/12/11
    This content is available in print at Lulu and digitally from DTRPG.

    On Resurrecting the Quantum Ogre and Having Him Over for Tea

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    Yes but. . .

    Tell the player the consequence of what will happen if he takes the action, before he takes the action. Do not play 'Gotcha!' 'You didn't say!' or 'Guess what I'm thinking!' games with the players.

    "If you do that, you will be visible down the corridor. Do you still want to do that?"
    "If you do that he will get to attack you, do you still wish to do that?"
    "You can explore that entire building if you wish - there is stuff there - but if you're looking for treasure, there probably won't be much in that building"

    What's in it for me. . .

    If your players cannot make a decision because they lack information, give it to them!

    "Maybe we shouldn't go there, he could just be saying he has a magic sword."
    "He actually has a magic sword - if you do the quest he will get it and give it to you."

    Remember. . .

    It's not that they are stupid—it's that they have stressful jobs, kids, families, and lots of responsibilities other then gaming and can't spend as long as you making sure they remember ever last detail. That's your job.

    1:"Are we going west or south."
    2:"South has bugbears, maybe we should go west."
    DM:"Well, south also has the temple, which has a lot of treasure in it, and also the cult leader you have been getting clues about lives there - and if you go west, you can't forget that griffons haunt the pass, as well as the inevitable mountain giants and their pet red dragons."
    1:"Red Dragons?!"
    DM:"Yes, but due to the curse from the yis-gothka, they-"
    DM:"The temple guys."
    1:"Oh, I remember now - let's go get those giants."
    DM:"Ok, so giants over treasure in the temple and the cult leader, correct?"

    No, but. . .

    Listen to your players. If they are asking questions they are telling you what they want to know. Don't ever only tell them no - always say the reason why you are telling them no, and provide them a path to accomplish what they want. Be realistic about what is possible and not, and allow them to deviate from what you envision for them.

    "Can I get my horse raised?"
    Restricted agency response: "No, you don't know how."
    Pro-agency response: "Well, you don't know how, but you could pay a sage or ask at the temple and I'm sure they could tell you more if that's something you'd like to do. There are likely to be some drawbacks, and it will probably cost some gold."

    Trick/Trap agency

    There is an appropriate way to run a crushing ceiling. 

    First, it must be clear that a deadly trap can happen. The game makes it easy, because usually this is the entrance or threshold into the underworld. It must be explicit that death or misfortune can occur. The players should be on their guard for this type of thing.

    "This structure has stood for innumerable years, who knows what devious and arcane protections it may possess?"
    "You see the sign of the devious kobolds, the hammers and gears of their deadly trapwork lay scattered about assuring a risky venture into the depths"

    The second thing that must occur is that you must make the trap obvious. A good way to do this is to describe one or two unimportant things, with one important thing. Often the naturalistic effects of the trap will dictate this conversation.

    "Ahead in the chamber is a cool breeze, dust swirls around on the floor and an earthen smell assaults your nose."
    "I examine the dust and chamber."
    "The dust appears to be finely ground stone, there are several dark stains within the room. On the walls scrapes and gouges run vertically up and down the walls. Do you wish to enter the room?"
    "No. what do the stains look like?"
    "They could be rust. . . or blood."
    Party together "Collapsing ceiling."


    When the players ask for something say yes!

    And then give them three problems to go with it. There! Now they are having the adventure they want!

    Yes, but. . .

    When the players ask for something you can't give them, tell them what they need to do - both in and out of game turns.

    "I'd like to learn that reduced facing skill that's so cool"
    "Well, you'll have to ask a sage how to do that"
    Player pays information tax
    "Well, you have to go through the valley of the slow centipede, traverse the central forgehammer mountains, and seek out the Loydan monastery where there are monks who teach it. If everyone stays focused, it will take one session of hex travel, and one session of doing a quest for the monks - unless you have a better way to convince them to cooperate."

    On misinterpretations of the nature of Agency


    "I should keep things secret from my players for realism! Because sometimes people lie! They shouldn't know if the guy has an actual magic sword or not before they do the quest!"

    What's the result here—you being their only source of knowledge have tricked them into doing something just so you can laugh at them taking your word?  Is that why people play Dungeons and Dragons?

    "They should have listened when I told them about the duke, and then know he was lying to them!"

    They are other human beings who are busy and in a room with 2-8 of their peers that they like and haven't seen in a week or longer. It is not conducive to catching every last detail. They are there to play a game, not hang on every offhand word.

    "You said you should tell your players when the non-player character's are lying to them! You are a terrible Dungeon Master and must have no skills if you can't communicate this information in game! If you can't drop clues so they can figure it out, you are a terrible person and a worse Dungeon Master!"

    First, that advice is about clearing up adventure hooks for the party—so they can make an informed decision as people about what they want to do tonight in your game. Clearly based on the other advice in the article I am not advocating that the players be informed of everything by out of character talking. 

    Second, Leaving 'really good clues' around everywhere and expecting players to guess your intent is not 'skillful' play. In fact, forcing the players to play mind reading games and 'guess what I'm thinking' are exactly what this type of article is aimed at addressing. 

    There is no way for a group of random human beings to know what your baseline expectations are for a situation—how often have we been surprised by how another person deals with something? If you don't give them information, and you're not explicit about it, then you are destroying their agency. It isn't necessary to tell them how to solve the puzzle, but letting them know there's a puzzle and what the pieces are seems an appropriate approach if you want a puzzle solved. 

    "There's nothing fun about blind luck! And if you don't fudge the dice and alter the story that's what it comes down to!"

    If you never let anything bad happen to the characters, I understand why it seems that way. The reason it doesn't all come down to blind luck is player skill. The skill comes in creating a situation where the fate of the whole party doesn't rely on a single dice roll. If your players are often in a situation where it all comes down to blind luck it's because anytime something bad has happened, you've protected them from the consequence, so why would they try anything different? As long as you are there to pull their fat from the fire, they will engage in every combat knowing they can't lose. In the long run this is less satisfying then winning a victory against the authentic chance of a loss.

    "But I can't let them destroy the epic encounter at the climax of the adventure by a lucky roll!"

    Think about it. The example of Beedo's players causing Strahd's death wasn't the result of a lucky roll—it was the result of planning, thought and skill of the players that created the situation that allowed the roll. They used player skill to make the opponent's fate rely on a single die roll. Making them fight some long battle is taking away from the very epicness of the situation! Beedo's players will be talking about how they killed Strahd for much longer than any of his other 'boss fights'. Because it was their plan, it was real, it mattered, and it stuck.

    The real key to this is, it swings both ways.

    "But if they don't have this encounter - they won't experience my precious plot."


    "They have to have this encounter or the game just won't work."

    Is this because of fear of having to adapt or figure out what the players want?  The thing is, if you have a key encounter, and you give it to them, and they refuse it—forcing them to have it doesn't improve the situation. Also, if you're giving them half a dozen options—there isn't a way to tie many of them into a plot one way or another?

    "There's no right way to run a game. My players have control over the world and we do improv storytelling, and everything is tied into their story!"

    Yes, believe it or not, I've run games like that before—where players know their plot arc, and have script immunity, and it's about drama and acting. That is not D&D. It's not structured that way—it's a game, and one with fairly clear expectations and rules. You can certainly change up and add to D&D—it's designed that way. But this is a blog about the game of old-school D&D, the type where you don't name your fighter till level 3, and it's structured around exploring dungeons and clearing hexes. I'm glad you are having fun, but be clear about your house rules being house rules—if you say that characters can just say anything and have it be true in improv style; That text doesn't contain a the rule about characters making up story elements as a part of play.

    "Newer games give you lots of agency, because there are lots of rules. And you don't just use those rules to make your character, in the game you have lots of different options during combat, meaning your making lots of decisions and choices, and those choices matching your intent! That's player agency also"

    Of course. Chess has a ton of player agency, in the realm of tactical and strategic options of a board game. I play lots of boardgames and tactical strategy games and they are lots of fun. Again, not Dungeons & Dragons though (no matter what people call it) and that's what I'm focused on providing agency in.

    "If I have a wandering monster table with 1 encounter and a 100% chance of that encounter - how is that different then the quantum ogre?"

    Cute. Well, the original article postulated 3 options (groves of trees), and a DM that no matter what the party did, found the ogre in the first one, and the mcguffin in the last one the party entered. And there was nothing they could do to change or avoid the outcome. 

    This strawman assumes that all improvisation on the part of the Dungeon Master is negative. Clearly there are appropriate times to do all of the things that I recommend against doing. Older editions even contained rules to bypass the need to do them! A classic example is morale. In Pathfinder, if the party has clearly won the fight, and there are just a few orcs left, having a player kill one instead of leaving it with one hit point is a perfectly acceptable time to fudge the dice, because the outcome doesn't matter. All you are doing is facilitating interesting choices, instead of uninteresting ones. In earlier editions they would have already fled due to morale failure.

    You will spring an encounter on the PC's You will roll sometimes and ignore it. You will dictate player actions. Just always be sure to do so in a way that maintains agency. ("Well, unless you two are interested in playing homosexual characters—we're going to re-roll on the how did you meet table", "You set up camp and turn in for the night")

    "I don't want a bunch of random things happening! I want a story!"

    Two things. First, is that all the randomness in a sandbox is supposed to simulate expected things—don't put ice worms on your volcano encounter table.

    Secondly, the idea is that the events and choices of the players are the things that we look back on and tell stories about. These stories aren't about the plot, but about the thing that's greater that's shared between a group of people. The sandbox is a living breathing world. No prescriptive outcomes, no predetermined plots. Whatever you have in mind, can only be improved by the shared creativity and experience of other people.

    "The players don't know the difference! I can lie to them all I want! There's no difference between a quantum ogre and a wandering encounter."

    Have you ever seen the film where they underestimate the audience? Notice how all the best films don't do that?

    "Everything in my game has to have a purpose!"

    The unspoken part is—of your design. How about you let the player purpose themselves into your game?

    Edit: The date was changed for appropriate tag display. The original Publication date was 9/13/2011.
    This content is available in print at Lulu and digitally from DTRPG.

    On the Corpse of the Quantum Ogre

    I'm a Quantum Ogre
    In the years since I've written the Quantum Ogre articles, I've gotten a lot of response, most of it positive. This is a coda to the series, addressing many of these comments.

    What is a Quantum Ogre?

    It is a situation in which the Dungeon Master removes agency* from the players because of his desire for an outcome.

    WOAH! Did our eyes glaze over? What that means is that the player tries to do a thing (cast a spell, use a skill, attack a creature, make a choice) and the Dungeon Master does something actively to neutralize that thing!

    "Oh, there's an anti-magic field here!" or "Nope, your skill fails." or "You miss." or maybe he adjust the hit points of a creature so that it doesn't die yet, or suddenly decides his big bad evil guy is wearing a ring of free action.

    Does this mean Dungeon Masters can't have anti-magic fields or opponents that wear rings of free action? Of course not. It's only agency-denying if it's a response to player action that undermines the freedom in the game. 

    The secret is, they can't ruin an encounter, because in a game free of quantum ogres, the outcome is never pre-decided, so can never be ruined.

    I read your article and don't understand how this doesn't ruin the game! If you tell your players what's in every cave and what they are going to get for every reward how is their any sense of freedom or mystery? Don't they have the freedom to not get that information?

    The Quantum Ogre series isn't advice on how to Dungeon Master.

    It is a list of tools to solve specific problems that traditionally are areas where agency can be impacted.

    So when you look at the advice for "What's in it for me?" It specifically address the part of the game where the player has to make a choice about what they are going to do in the game that night.

    You know, the situation where they want to know what's in it for them!

    The advice isn't "Tell them the specific consequences of any action they might take in the game ever the whole entire time." The advice is, "When the game starts, and the players are trying to decide what activity they are going to engage in for the evening, they should have a good idea about how to get access to the activity they want to do." That means, if they want to do some talking in character and political maneuvering, you should tell them that going into the crypt isn't going to cause that to happen, that instead, they should visit the haunted forest where the fay ball is happening this evening.

    Each of the original pieces of advice are not pieces of general advice. They are all designed to solve specific problems.

    Yes but. . . is designed to assist with communication errors between players and the Dungeon Master. They can't know what's in your head, so this tool is used when actions are taken to keep everyone on the same page.

    Remember. . . is designed to avoid real world frustration. You are sitting in a room with real people who are friends. It is not your job to make those people jump through hoops. Player skill is about making informed choices, not recalling something they may not have even noted in the first place. What this tool does is skip past the bewilderment of a player to quickly get back to the interesting parts of the game.

    No, but. . . is designed to address the problem of the player not understanding the world to the degree that the Dungeon Master was. If you've ever wondered why a player just doesn't do this simple solution to the problem, it's because they aren't aware of it! This allows players to do things in the game that let them accomplish your goals. The fact that doing this makes your job easier is just a side benefit.

    Trick/Trap Agency is designed to avoid the gotcha. It doesn't mean you have to dumb anything down - the Green Devil Face has plenty of agency. There's a poem. No one is forced into it. The general idea is that the players must make the choice to engage with the trap and there must be some way for them to become aware of it.

    Yes is designed to make the game fun for the players! Who likes to be shut down? It's also a subtle admonition to avoid the word no when running a game. If the answer isn't Yes, but . . . or No, but . . ., why not yes?

    Isn't a Random table essentially a Quantum Ogre? How can you have the players run into a village with a festival? Is it fair to do so? Can the Dungeon Master ever decide anything?

    Of course you can decide things. Of course you can just invent things you think would be cool during play.

    The Quantum Ogre isn't about putting an ogre in the woods. It's about invalidating the players decisions. Any time you are deciding something or making a choice that does that, you are at risk of invalidating agency.

    But what about a random encounter table with only one entry? What about these random situations that I've concocted? Aren't there lots of places where player choices are invalidated, like death? Where is the line where agency is impacted?

    Dungeon Mastering is hard.

    It's a chaotic, magical, talent that is easy to learn, but maybe only really old dudes with wizard eyebrows master. I like to call when I make mistakes "fucking up". I make mistakes to this day when I run games.

    The fact is, is that this isn't about absolutes. It is about knowledge the participants possess, expectations, and intent of the Dungeon Master.

    Many of the examples I've been given, can't even be addressed in terms of agency, because they depend on context. I ran a pathfinder game and told the players, there would be 'decision points' during cutscenes and that the game was about the tactical environment. Their choices would affect the forthcoming battle and at certain points they would have options about which map they were going to take on next. Even though the adventure was linear, they were able to act with agency. There were no quantum ogres or railroading because the agency they expected to have at the start of the game was never infringed.

    What if they wanted to something else? They didn't. That's a railroad! No agency was actively removed during play - it was traded by choice for a more complex planned battle!

    It is a question of intent and degrees, dependent on context. 

    Isn't a dungeon a railroad because it has walls and the players can't visit any room at the start? Isn't a town filled with Quantum Ogres because guards will attack the players if they steal? What about people who might be bothered by a hypothetical situation?

    Dungeon Mastering is hard son.

    Are you running games? Do your players feel empowered?

    Are their misunderstandings about game expectations? That happens. Are those misunderstandings deliberate efforts on your part to force an outcome? That's called lying.

    Are the players able to acquire information about the world? Is that information meaningful?

    The Quantum Ogre isn't a thought experiment. It is an example of certain type of gaming problem, with a list of concrete solutions designed to resolve those problems and make role playing more fun for both the players and the Dungeon Master.

    *Player Agency (n.): “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the [virtual] world whose effects relate to the player’s intention” -Mateas, 2001

    Edit: The date was changed for appropriate display by tag. The original publication date was 7/15/13

    This content is available in print at Lulu and digitally from DTRPG.
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