Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?

Eventually, every dungeon master winds up guilty of illusionism: You offer the players a choice that seems to matter, and then rearrange the game world so all the options lead to the same outcome.

An illusionist GM prepares an encounter that pits the characters against an ogre on the road. Then, whether the players take the low road or the high road, they face that same ogre. If they opt to stay home for tea and cakes, the ogre fancies a bite.

426px-Sandys,_Frederick_-_Morgan_le_FayIn the early days of role-playing games, when players tried to beat dungeons and dungeon masters acted as something between referee and adversary, such illusionist deceptions resembled cheating. Chivalry & Sorcery (1978) advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.”

As the game changed into a way to engage players in a story, illusionism became a tempting strategy for GMs. Deception appealed to GMs who wished to steer players through a particular story, but also to GMs who needed to prepare a game without preparing for every possibility.

GMs running campaigns aim for three targets: player freedom, world detail, and ease of preparation. Those of us who must keep a day job can only choose two. Illusionism seems like a way to cheat by dropping player freedom while making the players think they remain free. If the players believe their choices count, what does it matter if they don’t?

The ogre encounter seems innocent. Dungeons & Dragons players expect to stumble on monsters, and that ogre could appear on either route as a wandering monster. But what if the players must guess whether the Dread Baron travels the low road or the high road? Do you base the villain’s travel plans on whether your story calls for a showdown today?

Many GMs feel that offering an illusion of choice robs players’ of real control over their characters’ fates, so illusionism is unfair on principle. While writing about illusionism, John Arendt concludes, “The DM is obligated to administer the setting in a way that ensures player choice is meaningful, in accordance with the previously established facts.” Courtney Campbell adds, “I think illusionism is abhorrent in both D&D-style games, and story-based, plot-arc games.”

I admire the principle, but players don’t join your game because they admire your unwavering game theory.

In every RPG session, players sacrifice some of their characters’ freedom for fun. When they join the game, they silently agree to band their PCs together, to cooperate, and to have their PCs award the magic item to whoever rolls highest on the great d20 in the sky.

The price of illusionism comes from another angle. Much of the fun of games come from making interesting choices and then experiencing the consequences. For more, see “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.”

In a role-playing game, good choices come with enough information to make illusion difficult. The sort of choices that let you easily fake illusionary consequences tend to be dull choices based on scant facts. When you serve players such vague options, they hardly enrich the game. High road or low road? Flip a coin.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, then either choice could lead to the same wandering ogre. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the party thief a favor. Ogres could wander either route, but now the choice becomes interesting because each road takes the adventure on a different spin.

The best choices lead to consequences too specific to fake with illusion. If the players spurn a town that pleaded for help against raiders, the town burns. If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies.

You could contrive circumstances that spares players from the expected consequences: A storm delays the raiders until the players arrive. Lady Redblade blames a rival for stealing the artifact that the players took for themselves. But whenever a convenient break spares your story from the players’ actions, your game world loses credibility. If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Illusionism isn’t a cheat; it’s a compromise. Illusion may save a great encounter or contribute to an impression of freedom, but it bears a price. Whenever you serve an illusion of choice, you miss a chance to offer the sort of real choice that enhances the game.

Should you use to illusionism at your table? The game is yours. Every dungeon master knows the benefit of deception. Now you understand the cost of a lost opportunity. Interesting choices carry a price.

6 thoughts on “Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?

  1. thegneech

    One could argue that the Three Clue Rule is a form of illusionism (the players will get at least one clue no matter what), but without it any form of progress towards a goal tends to break down. I’d argue that the Quantum Ogre is a form of railroading, in a way that the Three Clue Rule isn’t, however, because it doesn’t force a result—which is the real “sin” of illusionism.

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  2. Ilbranteloth

    Ahh, the quantum ogre.

    The problem with this example is that the choice has nothing to do with the ogre in the first place. If the ‘choice’ isn’t about the ogre, then the appearance of the ogre (or not) is irrelevant.

    The theory of the game and the reality of running the game are two very different things. If the goal of the game is for the DM to provide a great evening of excitement, play, narrative, etc. for the players, and the players are 100% on board that they are there to play their characters and experience the evening, then the techniques behind the screen don’t matter.

    What!!? That’s absurd!

    Well, not really. If the purpose of the game is to ‘beat’ the game, like a video game, and/or your approach is a mechanical/rules-based game, then it matters more, but only if your rules also include such restrictions on the DM. Most games are played ‘by the rules’ where the actions a player can take and the consequences are defined by the rules. In addition, in the old approach to designing a game, they are almost always competitive. You are trying to win.

    The reason our group loved D&D when we picked it up in the ’70s is that you weren’t limited to that approach. The DM could do whatever was needed to ensure that the players went away saying, ‘that was awesome!’ There wasn’t any consideration that the DM was ‘cheating’ because the DM was never playing against the PCs. To a large degree, they aren’t even ‘playing’ the game. Therefore, they couldn’t cheat.

    There are, of course, limits to this, and the most important factor of that is the players. What is important to them? I see lots of theoretical discussion online, and people who have told me, ‘if that’s the rule at your table I’d get up and leave.’

    I question that, though. I don’t object to it. If I’m really not running the type of game you like, that’s fair. On the other hand, there are many, many different ways to run an RPG, and maybe you’ll find you like sitting at my table – maybe even more than at other tables you’ve played.

    I do take into account the wishes of the players. But I think that we get too stuck on the theoretical sometimes and lose sight of the game.

    As a DM, I consider my job to provide a consistent mechanical experience. That is, you have a pretty good expectation of what the result of most of your actions will be, with some variation. This is most evident in things like combat. But we are a simulationist bunch, and recognize that something like combat is never totally predictable. The dice are the obvious variable, but we give the DM wide latitude in assessing variables (primarily advantage/disadvantage now). It’s not as cut and dry as the published rules, there isn’t enough variability to our liking.

    Beyond that, the world should make sense. Often that is in hindsight, but my players will pick out plot holes a mile away. I don’t write plots, though, I write motivations, schemes, etc. and the plot generally unfolds due to the actions and decisions of the PCs. Many times that means determining what happens off-stage for the many plot threads that they don’t engage directly, or impact indirectly.

    The point is, it’s ALL and illusion. Mine is very responsive to the PCs and players choices, often interweaving things that the players themselves say during the sessions. It might show up months later, but it’s the sort of thing they are more likely to figure out (not the source, but the scheme, because it’s something that they had already thought of, instead of something solely out of my head).

    In many games, the PCs only have the choices the DM puts in front of them. That’s a different form of illusionism/railroading. It gives the illusion of being able to ‘do anything’ but the reality is that you are still limited to the options they’ve prepared. One of the reasons I prefer to improvise a lot, but I still have prepared things that I can drop in when they fit the circumstances.

    The quantum ogre is a theoretical question in a vacuum, and an incomplete look at just how the game is prepared/improvised by the DM. It also entirely ignores the actual game as experienced by the players/PCs.

    For example, you provide a high road and a low road. The players take the high road, and encounter the ogre. Most of the time, they’ll never take the low road too. Even if they do, the ogre won’t be there, unless it escaped and they encounter it again. The choice had consequences, even if the consequences weren’t redetermined.

    Furthermore, players don’t object to the idea of the appearance of the ogre being random.

    We take the high road:
    DM (behind the screen): OK, there’s a 40% chance they’ll meet the ogre..rolls dice.

    But as soon as the DM makes the decision that the ogre is there, then it’s somehow bad.

    I reject this assessment. Illusionism, fudging, railroading, and many other tools used to manipulate the narrative are valid options in ‘moderation’ and the definition of moderation is entirely dependent on how the players experience the game.

    The number one job of the DM? Provide an awesome experience for the players.

    I would argue that most players care little of actually HOW the game is run. At least that’s my experience, because I do ask specific questions frequently, and we discuss the theory frequently. What I can tell you, is that the majority of my players who have moved away frequently come back to me and tell me that they other games they play in aren’t the same. They don’t do it like I do and they miss it. Or they are DMing their own game, and they want my input because what they are reading in the rules/online isn’t matching up and producing the experience they prefer. I take that as a sign that whatever I’m doing it working.

    I do continually try to improve my skills as a DM, and I have consistently questioned, debated, and experimented with using and not using techniques like these. What I’ve found is that I (and others I watch) use these techniques far more frequently than they realize, or even recognize. So I am more aware of when I am, or might use, one of these techniques. And it does cause me to question if it’s the right technique for the moment. It all comes back to the players, the thrust of the game at that point, and whether the ogre being there or not is the option that makes that game better right now.

    Illusionism, fudging and other techniques have been declared by some as cheating and bad. But they’ve skewed the context of the game, at least the game I learned all those years ago, and try to apply a moral compass based on a DM vs Player mentality (or label it as such), when the reality is that if the players are having a bad game it’s not because of any one of these techniques. It’s because the DM isn’t doing a good job period. They may be a symptom of some bad DMs, but they aren’t bad by themselves.

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    1. ThrorII

      I agree 100%. Quantum Ogres aid in game fun. Example: my players are off to find an Ogre lair, but are not sure where it is. The ogre lair was not planned by me as to where it would be. The players discuss the location, make some reasonable assumptions, and head out. Guess what? They find that quantum ogre lair! Why? Because it makes the game fun, makes the players feel like they contributed, and resolves an adventure in a satisfying way.

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  3. lukexsc

    I think the inverse of this lesson is really interesting: “If you’re going to put in the work to design different outcomes, make sure the players can see it”. Since, If you’re going to take all that time to build content the players might not see, it seems wasteful to dress it up as one of those easy to fake “which road do you take?” choices. It robs them of their depth.

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