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.
In 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.