Friday, January 26, 2007

Lesson: Illusionism

Illusionism is a set of techniques that many of us have experienced - and if it's done skillfully enough, we likely never realized it.

In RPGs in which one individual is given the privilege and responsibility of managing the functioning of the game's setting and basic workings, it's a common understanding that the game reality will offer scope for adventure, as well as opportunities for the other players to make choices and decisions that decide the direction of the narrative. Keeping the right mix of structure and freedom is a difficult balancing act - so sometimes it's simplest to cheat, and offer the appearance of choice without its substance. After all, what the players don't know won't hurt them. That's Illusionism in a nutshell.

It's important to distinguish between outright fudging, simple prearrangement, and Illusionism. Combat scenarios in which players achieve extraordinarily lucky manuevers are often considered enjoyable, but few appreciate the consequences of letting villians or monsters have such good fortune. If an opponent gets particularly lucky, any storyteller or game master might misrepresent the result of a secretly-decided mechanic, but that's not enough to be Illusionism. Nor is crafting the outline of an adventure ahead of time, or establishing that certain plot elements will happen no matter what. In order to qualify, the players must be presented with a choice or series of choices that when made seems to affect game events, while in actuality the consequences of each option are the same. For example, a band of travelers might have the opportunity to take multiple paths and choose between different destinations. If they'll have a certain encounter no matter what choice they make, this can be considered to be a very basic form of Illusionism; adjusting the details of the encounter to match the specific choices made by the players would be a more sophisticated one.

Other types of storyteller influence or control are frequently seen as paternalistic at best and authoritarian at worst, but Illusionism is notable for the general approval of its use if applied properly. When intermixed with events that the storyteller truly doesn't have control over, Illusionistic techniques can help maintain a necessary structure and prevent the storyteller from being overwhelmed. Trying to improvise complex responses to player choices can be prohibitively difficult; occasional slight-of-hand with the options presented makes it possible to concentrate on improvising the details of events, not entire narrative structures.

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