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
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