Illusionism? Wassat?

edited October 2008 in Story Games
I've seen a few post mention this in a few days: Illusionism. What is that? Is it an offshoot of Immersion or something?
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  • I believe there is a really thorough explanation of it somewhere, possibly the Forge glossary, but I can't remember. From my recollection it is a name for that practice in games where the GM gives the option of a choice but the outcome is the same, regardless of the decision made - thus it not being a real choice, just an illusion.

    ie. You are travelling from A to C. You come to a fork in the road. You know that one way, you will encounter B and then onto C. Another you will go straight to C. The GM knows that 'right' will lead you direct to C. You choose 'right'. Suddenly, 'left' takes you direct to C and lo and behold, you encounter B. The GM was always going to have you encounter B. The choice was an illusion.

    At least, thats what I believe it means. I could, as always, be talking utter garbage

    Neil
  • Illusionism

    A family of Techniques in which a GM, usually in the interests of story creation, story creation, exerts Force over player-character decisions, in which he or she has authority over resolution-outcomes, and in which the players do not necessarily recognize these features. See Illusionism: a new look and a new approach and Illusionism and GNS. Term coined by Paul Elliott.

    From The Provisional Glossary
  • As long as everybody is on board, illusionism can be awesome. Of course, if everybody is on board, it isn't illusionism any more.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarAs long as everybody is on board, illusionism can be awesome. Of course, if everybody is on board, it isn't illusionism any more.
    Right! Then it's participationism. Illusionism is the Schroedinger's cat of Forge theory!
  • It can also be awesome if the players never find out.

    I played Doom 3 and there was one apparent story fork. It made no difference which option you chose. If I hadn't read that there was no choice, I would have been perfectly happy with the way it went.
  • Posted By: Bill_WhitePosted By: Jason MorningstarAs long as everybody is on board, illusionism can be awesome. Of course, if everybody is on board, it isn't illusionism any more.
    Right! Then it's participationism. Illusionism is the Schroedinger's cat of Forge theory!
    Quantum Mechanics? In MY games?

    image
  • Ah, now I get it.

    Illusionism means that, no matter how dead the cat may look, once the show is over, it comes back to life. No matter whether or not, or when, you choose to look inside the box.
  • Posted By: JuddFromThe Provisional Glossary
    Holy crap, this is awesome. Thanks! I'll be the honest: The Forge scares the crap out of me. That's some intense discussion going on over there, and I fear it is way over my head. But with this glossary I'll get a much stronger grasp RPG Theory Lingo and might take a brave few steps toward posting there!

    Also, fantastic fodder for Podcast discussion topics, heh.

    So Illusionism is really just a specific technique of railroading, sounds like. I know I've been guilty of it myself from time to time. It certainly has it's uses, but if the players are aware of it, it severely limits their investment in the plot.
  • It's bad because it is predicated on deceit, right? But the notion that some degree of meaningful choice is taken away, or re-allocated, or whatever, and handed to one player isn't necessarily an evil thing. Many, many games work this way and it's no big deal. If you play 3:16 you don't get a meaningful choice about where you will go or what you will fight, and that's right up front. D&D4 is organized into encounters. The place where collaboration and choice occur is somewhere other than the encounter conveyor belt. In terms of D&D over-arching story development, maybe that's between sessions. "We want to fight guys riding manticores next week!" "OK!"
  • Kevin,

    The Forge theory stuff is kind of scary. You realize that there is absolutely no need for you to learn it, right?

    You can and should post about whatever you want to discuss or receive feedback on. Here OR at the Forge. No theory knowledge or jargon is necessary. I think most people on this forum would love for someone to express themselves in their own language in a way that is clear, rather than try to use theory terms and get into debates over whether they used them corectly. It's refreshing and we can get further along in the stuff that interests you and me.
  • edited October 2008
    Posted By: kevin.weiser
    So Illusionism is really just a specific technique of railroading, sounds like.
    Yeah. You know where the adventure's going, but you let the players think their decisions matter. "You look for clues? OK, then, you find a pointer to the next scene I wrote!".
    I know I've been guilty of it myself from time to time. It certainly has it's uses, but if the players are aware of it, it severely limits their investment in the plot.
    Usually, the argument goes the other way. If the players think their decisions matter, but they don't really, then it's bad. If they know the same things happen no matter what they do, then everyone's on the same page, the players are along for the ride and it's all cool.

    You'll note that lots of value-laden terms when we discuss this. Deceit, lying to the players, manipulation. People get emotive about this subject.

    Graham
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarIt's bad because it is predicated on deceit, right?
    Weeeeeell, I wouldn't say that illusionism is inherently bad, whether or not it's based on deceit. Like most techniques, it can be used well and it can also be over- or abused.

    Now, personally I've grown really tired of it, both as a player (I wanna do stuff, dammit!!!) and as a GM (That shit is hard work, man!!!) so it's something I try to avoid in my gaming ATM. Not really because it's based on deceit (Although that has something to do with it.), but mostly because I've had it up to here with "The GMs story" and want to actually, you know, influence things in a way that goes beyond fake choices. (Maybe the GMs I know justs uck at illusionism... ^_^)

    But yeah, if the ride has a nice view and the destination is awesometown, illusionism can be pretty fun, too. It's just not the be and all of gaming. (And now I just have to get some of the GMs I know to realize that... ^_^)
  • Here is another good article explaining illusionism and other styles.
  • Ah, but would you still be enjoying the ride with the view to awesometown if the GM was telling you that, yes, you can do whatever you want, and it'll be meaningful to the story?

    In other words, there is a difference between just not bringing some out into the open (explicitly-announced Participationism) and, well, deceit. Do you think they are both fine, at least potentially?
  • Complaining about illusionism is based on the same attitude that would compel someone who goes to a stage magician to be outraged if they discover he can't actually read minds.

    All illusionism is participationism - communication failures, expectation clashes and clunky performances are their own things and much more important.
  • All illusionism is participationism? How does that work?

    My understanding of the common definition: Illusionism = Participationism + deceit. That only works if deceit is nothing. I don't think it is.

    Are you using a different definition? If so, can you clear up what it is, and we can move forward with your definition.
  • I think, like everything, it has it's place. It really depends on the tone of the game and the table's social contract. If I know I'm going along for the GM's story then it's all well and good, but don't let me think what I do matters when it doesn't. That's just bad form.
  • edited October 2008
    An attempt at breaking it down:

    No choice is presented + players are OK with this = accepted fiat

    No choice is presented + players are not OK with this = unaccepted fiat

    Choice is presented + choice doesn't actually matter + players know = participationism

    Choice is presented + choice doesn't actually matter + players don't know + they never find out = illusionism

    Choice is presented + choice doesn't actually matter + players don't know + they find out + they don't like it = unaccepted participationism

    Choice is presented + choice doesn't actually matter + players don't know + they find out + they're OK with it = participationism, the long route

    Choice is presented + choice matters = participation with real impact

    Some people want accepted fiat, some people (at least implicitly) want participationism, some people want participation with real impact. Some people will say that since illusionism is, in principle, indistinguishable from having actual impact, they're fine with it. The problem is that, in practice, illusionism almost never stays hidden -- and when people find out, they'll either wish they had actual impact or wish you'd just told them up front.
  • But choice is always presented in RPGs. Character interpretation, deciding what to do, etc., are all choices. Unless we are talking about storytelling with a single storyteller. Fiat is an orthogonal issue.
  • Choice relevant to players' intentions. In practice, nobody cares if a whole slew of stuff is fiat-ed, and indeed, doing so is a healthy part of the substructure for play. It's when fiat renders players' decisions meaningless that you can have illusion/participation/force.
  • This makes me ponder exactly what Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Edition is doing then. Any time the GM fiats or shoots down a player, she hands out a hero point. The book encourages handing them out like candy, as they reset back to one at the beginning of each session.

    So Choice is Presented + Player opts to use a power + DM Awards Hero Point to make choice irrelevant = Illusory participationism?
  • edited October 2008
    Daniel, there's not just one choice, as you clearly pointed out. There are many choices, and those choices don't all need to be dealt with the same way. And yet, someone has to make those choices. Obviously, on one end of the spectrum, you have all decisions made by one person's fiat -- that's a single storyteller. On the other end, you have all choices made by the participants -- that's GM-less, or something. So, no, fiat is not an orthogonal issue; it's about who really makes the choices, which is exactly the issue at the crux of illusionism et al.

    And on the point of which decisions are the ones people fuss about making themselves, Mark W nails it. Thanks for the correction.

    ETA: Kevin, I think that's participationism -- it's agreed ahead of time (by virtue of playing with those rules) that the GM can decide to make the decision themselves if they so choose. There's no illusion, because the participants know that going in.
  • Posted By: Daniel YokomizoHere is another good article explaining illusionism and other styles.
    Man, you beat me to it... That is a damn fine essay that pretty much sums it all up. And defines each term in easy and approachable words.
  • People often talk about illusionism as if it were an all or nothing situation. Either the players have the freedom to make meaningful choices at all points, or they never have any. Often, though, I see illusionism as a very situational technique, that gets deployed briefly in the middle of non-illusionist play.

    For example, players are in a non-illusionist but GM-ful game. They have ended up through their own choices in some location (e.g. a dungeon style area), where the GM has prepared a few interesting things that they may or may not discover while exploring, but not drawn a map. Often the GM will present details of directional choices, for fiction verisimilitude, that actually don't matter. Basically there may be many routes, paths, corridors and the like, but there are only a few interesting things to find, so the GM will move those things to wherever the players go, because otherwise the experience will be deadly boring. Now that is illusionism, but it's not large scale, it's just a brief dabble.

    I've done that myself. I find that the players want detail of a location way beyond what I have prepared, because they want to explore, (e.g. they ask about every turn, or doorway, or mark on the wall ... when I wasn't expecting them too), but they also want to find something interesting. They do not, despite their wish for detail, really want to spend an hour looking at dead ends. Now I could tell them "You can can explore all you like, but there are only two interesting rooms to find" but that horribly breaks the mood, even if it is participationism, I find it better to use a touch of illusionism and just have them find the interesting room wherever it was they went.

    Now you could argue that's not meaningful choice, and therefore not actually illusionism, but I think by paying a lot of attention to making the choice the players make it meaningful, even if it shouldn't be.
  • edited October 2008
    Hituro, is that illusionism, or is that scene framing?
  • Posted By: Mark WHituro, is thatillusionism, or is thatscene framing?
    I've come to the position that the difference between (aggressive) scene framing and illusionism (or, at its worst, railroading) is the possibility of player input, the existence of some mechanism for negotiation among players and GM or at least feedback from the players to the GM, with respect to what happens next where.
  • Interesting question ... it's kind of to do with the gaps between scenes rather than the scene framing itself, how you get to the scenes, in the fiction (as opposed to the play process).
  • Hituro it seems to me that this technique is similar to trailblazing as defined here. Am I understanding it right?
  • edited October 2008
    Posted By: Max HigleyDaniel, there's not just one choice, as you clearly pointed out. There are many choices, and those choices don't all need to be dealt with the same way. And yet, someone has to make those choices. Obviously, on one end of the spectrum, you have all decisions made by one person's fiat -- that's a single storyteller. On the other end, you have all choices made by the participants -- that's GM-less, or something. So, no, fiat is not an orthogonal issue; it's about who really makes the choices, which is exactly the issue at the crux of illusionism et al.
    I was trying to point out that choice is always presented (e.g. "What are you doing?", "What do you want to do?"), but in illusionism the future is predetermined (minus color). We can separate in fiction-affecting decisions (in illusionism only the GM can make those) and color-affecting decisions. What was I trying to say when I said "fiat is an orthogonal issue" is that fiat is a possibility in styles other than illusionism (but my wording was awful). I think we're agreeing more than disagreeing, it seems that our problem was with wording not with concepts.

    IMO the real issue with illusionism WRT fiat is the way fiat is invisible: players think they affect the world and there's no fiat, but there's fiat everywhere.
  • Posted By: Lord MinxWeeeeeell, I wouldn't say that illusionism is inherently bad
    I would. Or rather, I wouldn't use the term bad, so much as dysfunctional.

    Playing RPGs is a social occasion. It's the embodiment of a relationship between me and the other players. If it's based on lies and manipulation where one person on the upper end of a power imbalance uses those "techniques" to squash the input of the others and get what they want, then it's dysfunctional, just as it is in every other human social relationship.
  • chearns: good point!
  • edited October 2008
    The difference between Illusionism and Partecipationism, in "forge theory" (and lexicon) isn't about the knowledge of what it's happening by the players, or about the deception. It's about the existence of the "black curtain".

    Quoting the glossary:

    "Participationism : The Technique of using Force without the Black Curtain. Term coined by Mike Holmes."

    "Illusionism: A family of Techniques in which a GM, usually in the interests of story creation, story creation, exerts Force over player-character decisions, in which he or she has authority over resolution-outcomes, and in which the players do not necessarily recognize these features. See Illusionism: a new look and a new approach and Illusionism and GNS. Term coined by Paul Elliott."

    If the players KNOW that the GM is using illusionism, but he doesn't acknowledge this and still hid these techniques behind a "black curtain", and everybody act during the game as if nobody know about the "deception".. it's not a real deception, it's still illusionism (and, in my opinion, the only functional kind of illusionism)

    It become partecipationism only when nobody care to keep the curtain anymore and people at the table talk openly about these things.

    Both are "railroading" only if they violate the social contract of the group.

    "Railroading - Control of a player-character's decisions, or opportunities for decisions, by another person (not the player of the character) in any way which breaks the Social Contract for that group, in the eyes of the character's player. The term describes an interpretation of a social and creative outcome rather than any specific Technique."

    (I have some problem with this definition of railroading, by the way: as written, if a player has his/her control over the character's choices taken from him by the GM, and hate it, but still accept it as the kind of social contract he has to endure to be able to play and think that this is "right", he is not suffering under railroading. I think instead that he does)
  • I think the moral terms are unhelpful. Illusionism isn't lying. You don't get D&D players, standing round after convention games, saying "He lied to me!".

    Graham
  • edited October 2008
    I think you do. Some of the con play reports I've read have complained about the illusion of choice they had, and how the Gm screwed them over.
    But I think it's more of a problem in long-term groups, where the culture of deceit and mistrust engendered by illusionism leads to damaged relationships and other sorts of dysfunction.
  • edited October 2008
    It's, um, this kind of moralising that turns people off indie games.

    Graham
  • edited October 2008
    Posted By: Graham WIt's, um, this kind of moralising that turns people off indie games.
    Any "camp" has stuff that turn speople off, just as there are people being turned off by other reasons, spurious or not.

    So how about we make that NOT into another Indie vs. Trad thread, ok? There are many ways to disagree with the statement without going all "See, and that's why Indie sucks", no?
  • I apologize for introducing moral judgment into the conversation. That was sort of a dick move in retrospect, sorry.

    Kevin, have you gotten what you want out of this thread?
  • Posted By: Daniel YokomizoHituro it seems to me that this technique is similar to trailblazing as definedhere. Am I understanding it right?
    Not quite. In Trailblazing you can loose the trail, and the GM won't really help you get it back. In this case the GM spots that you've lost the trail, aren't going to get it back any time soon, *want* to get it back, and then moves the trail to wherever it is you happen to be going.
  • Posted By: kevin.weiserSo Choice is Presented + Player opts to use a power + DM Awards Hero Point to make choice irrelevant = Illusory participationism?
    Just regular ol' participationism with a bribe to encourage acceptance.
  • edited October 2008
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarKevin, have you gotten what you want out of this thread?
    Quite! And on that note, I find the moralizing fascinating. As one who is recently coming over to the hippy side of things, I find the temptation to moralize very strong. It's simply a side effect of being passionate about something: the stronger your feelings on a subject, the more likely you are to see aspects of that subject in moral terms. As they say "all anger is righteous anger". Besides, the definition of illusionism was fairly straightfoward, the real conversation lies in how we handle it at the table and whether it's healthy.

    To that end, I posit that Illusionism is not inherently bad, as it can save a flagging story and re-energize the table, but it's a technique that only has a few rare uses and lends itself to abuse far too easily. It must be used sparingly, cleverly, and with great caution.
  • Moreno,

    That's an interesting comment! If the people accepting the Social Contracts assume that "Illusionism" is the only way to run an RPG, but wish it were not the case and don't enjoy the game, is it railroading?

    If I understand you correctly, I'd be tempted to side with you. What's the counterargument, if any?
  • Posted By: GrahamIt's, um, this kind of moralising that turns people off indie games.

    Graham
    I don't understand this. My statement was pretty strong, I admit - though I stand by it. I was simply responding to this: 'Illusionism isn't lying. You don't get D&D players, standing round after convention games, saying "He lied to me!".' - which simply isn't my experience.
    I wasn't making an indie vs trad comment - I was talking about specific technique that might be used in either (yes, it's still possible to do it in some indie-esque games).
    I think Moreno's comment is spot on - and notice how his example of the only functional form of illusionism still relies on deception between the players, not just the characters.
  • Well, as this is a Forge term, I distrust it inherently. But you do create illusions when you're the GM, some of them not inherently bad.

    I didn't think that was the case in games like Primetime Adventures or In A Wicked Age, but, in fact, you still do. Not as intensely as in an old-style table top game (like FUDGE, say, which is pretty much written with a positive slant on using illusions to influence the outcome of the story. It encourages you to do so, in fact, with a few good reasons behind it.) But there is still a modicum of social maniupulation neccessary in these more story-oriented games and illusion is one of the tools in that toolbox.

    For instance, let's say you've got a player who's having trouble grasping what it means to set stakes. The player is enthusiastic and likeable and perhaps even an intregal part of the roleplaying group. But this persons' thinking style is far more concrete than abstract, making it difficult to grasp the idea that stakes are not always about accomplishing a task so much as facing a possible change to your character or the direction and mood of the story.

    How do you help this player, who may have a bit of an ego after being popular and important to the group for so long, grasp the idea without chiding or belittling? Well, the toolbox of techniques you've built up as a GM will probably have some illusion tricks for making players feel better about their decisions. These can be useful.

    Here's an old illusion technique, for instance: acting like the players threw you for a loop when they've spent some time coming up with a scheme.
    This works particularly well with what Robin Laws calls "tactical" players. It helps them feel like they've outsmarted me, even if they're walking into a pre-planned scene.

    Another one is warning people that you're not a great GM, but that you like doing it. It doesn't matter if you're a good GM or not, really, in most of the new crop of story games. (Well, things with a lot of player input like With Great Power... or Polaris ...or PtA, of course.) But if you make a mistake and the players already know you're not a good GM, you're covered. If you do a great job, you're gonna get a positive response anyway. And it helps players new to story games concepts accept them a little more, especially when they feel like they're discovering them despite your relative but well-meaning incompetence.

    People spend a great deal of their time in any social relationship wearing something of a mask anyway, accepting and handing out roles the group needs fulfilled and which you seem like you might be able to handle.

    I think where a lot of illusion techniques goes wrong is that there's a tendancy to become hubristic. When you can trick another person, you feel like you've got power over that person or a sense of mental superiority. Perhaps tinting your illusions with a sense of humility or self-effacing humor might take some of the curse off it. Or perhaps it makes you look like a whining loser. I can only hope the outcome is at least a little positive.
  • Arpie, you are mistaking social manipulation techniques with illusionism techniques. None of the techniques you describe is illusionistic: you are pushing the player to do the choice you want, while illusionism is about making him choose what he want and then discard his choice as meaningless, without telling him.

    Illusionism: the player must choose between doom 1 or 2. The GM know the choice is meaningless, in both cases he will find the same room
    Social manipulation: the player must choose between door 1 and 2, and the GM describe them in a way that would paint he character as a coward if he didn't choose the first one he meet (door 1). In a narrativist game is a very bad way to GM but it isn't a deception.

    Another thing: in you PTA example, it's the player that is playing by-the-book: stakes HAVE to be about some concrete objective of the character, from the characters point of view, in PTA-by-the-book (it's a very common drift to see stakes from the player's point-of-view, so in PTA-as-is-often-played your version would be all right, but the players isn't having "trouble": he is understanding the concept of stakes very well, and he is playing by-the-book)
  • edited October 2008
    You're kidding me.
    Man, that is SO frustrating.

    I really enjoyed playing PtA the wrong way. Every time I find out a little more of how it's supposed to be played, I like it a little less.
    I don't think I ever WANT to play PtA "the right way."

    And this brings up the other reason I tend to ignore Forge terms. They tend to be overwhelmingly negative, or at least interpreted that way.
    Unless, of course, they support the way Sorceror is played.

    I don't really want to use Illusionism as a criticism. I think of it as just another style of play (although I certainly understand how equally frustrating a GM using lies and a false sense of free will to humiliate his players can be!)
  • Robert, I think your Forge distrust gets in your eyes. It's true what the Forge definition of Illusionism describes is how roleplaying worked in them days - the GM uses force to make decisions on behalf of the player characters, while the players are left with th impression that they have the right to make those decisions. It's not that hard, and it's not negative. It's a description of what goes on.

    There are still many, many people that think this is how roleplaying games are supposed to work, and even trying to understand this is some kind of betrayal or whatever.

    But I don't get why you are responding in a thread about a Forge term if you tend to ignore those - or was your Forge filter not quite working? ;P
  • edited October 2008
    Posted By: ArpieYou're kidding me.
    Man, that is SO frustrating.

    I really enjoyed playing PtA the wrong way. Every time I find out a little more of how it's supposed to be played, I like it a little less.
    I don't think I ever WANT to play PtA "the right way."
    So play it the way you like it! :-)

    As I said, it's a very common drift anyway. There were a couple of threads about this only a few days ago... Ah, found them: Stakes Medium Rare and Internal States, Stakes and Primetime Adventures, plus a previous Forge discussion here: Players wanting their PC to fail?

    I don't really want to use Illusionism as a criticism. I think of it as just another style of play (although I certainly understand how equally frustrating a GM using lies and a false sense of free will to humiliate his players can be!)
    Well, this I have some difficulty with.

    You don't want to paint illusionism (with deception: there is a kind without deception that is functional in forge theory, as I wrote) as a legitimate technique [EDIT: I fumbled my "English writing" roll: I wanted to say "you don't want to paint Illusionism as a Bad" technique, and you don't agree with people who criticize it"] , without criticizing it. OK, no problem, it's an opinion worthy as mine.

    But this mean that you are saying that _deception_ (THAT deception, at least) can be good at the table, it's a legitimate technique, and it's only another stile of play. "illusionism" is only the name given to that technique. Why you see naming that "illusionism" instead of "deception" making it more criticized?
  • It's rather like saying acting is deception. It's sort of true, but not really.

    Graham
  • So once upon a time I ran an illusionist game. I made the players think they had choices, when really they didn't. No matter what they did, the outcome would still be the same.

    Everyone loved the game.

    Years later we're talking about the game, and I say, "Yea, well, it was illusionist, so..."

    One player says, "What do you mean? We totally decided that we were going to go kill Zoran, you didn't decide that, right?"

    And I'm like "Well, if you didn't go kill Zoran he was going to blow up the world, and given that we were playing with an assumed heroic dynamic, your acceptable range of choice at that point was pretty much nill." (Yes, I actually talk like that.)

    And that player goes "Oh... huh. I don't think I like that."

    Then the next player goes, "So no matter what I said to Cede, he would still have fallen in love with me?"

    And I'm like "Well, no. That was a subplot, I didn't really care what happened there so I just played the character as he was written."

    And that player goes "Well then I don't care, the whole killing Zoran thing was fun, but the point of the game to me was the relationship with Cede."

    And I go, "Oh... huh."

    And then the third player goes, "I got to blow shit up, so I don't really care."

    Then we went and played another game, and we all said, "So, if we're at a point where something has to happen, we just say it has to happen. If not, then the players really should decide what happens." And everyone said "Okay."

    And of course it didn't turn out to be that simple in play.
  • Posted By: Brand_Robins
    And of course it didn't turn out to be that simple in play.
    So, what happened? Now you HAVE to tell us more. What was so un-simple about it? Un-simple in a bad way? A good way? An edifying way, a frustrating way, what?

    (Darn you. You could've left off that last bit, and I'd be fine. Now it's gonna drive me crazy.)
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