Friday 16 September 2011

Faking It; or, you'd better be Al Pacino; or, stop rolling the fucking dice

There's been a lot of talk recently about player agency, quantum ogres, the GM as illusionist, palette shifting, and so forth: see herehereherehere and here. I won't regurgitate it all; suffice to say, I agree with -C.

This rebuttal interests me, though, because it raises an orthogonal issue that rarely gets mentioned in these sorts of discussions, here (none of it will make sense unless you read some of the linked posts):
[Robbing the players of agency is bad] only if the players are aware of the palette shifting. 
So long as nobody ever knows that the ogre so easily could have overcome the party could your predetermination in ignoring the agency of the dice be called into question. Remove the foreknowledge of the possible outcomes and you’ve removed all knowledge of the palette shift… and with removal of that knowledge, the palette shift itself is actually removed because the knowledge is a requirement of the shift by definition. 
What robs the game of fun is when the palette shift is known and is in direct opposition to the meaningful choice expectation of the player. Failing that, there is no measure against which to determine how the choice strayed from meaningful to false. 
And that is the true fallacy of the Quantum Ogre argument, that it is relativistic and requires player foreknowledge to categorize it as a false choice offering. Eliminate that foreknowledge and there is no Quantum Ogre.

The issue this raises is as follows: unless the DM is really good at acting and has a great poker face, players will often know when he is palette shifting/robbing them of agency/fudging dice/whatever. An RPG is not a Schrodinger's Box, and nor is the GM's head, because the players can observe what is going on indirectly. They are human beings and so is the GM, and human beings can often read each other's thoughts and feelings through body language. This makes the rebuttal of -C's arguments a kind of classic example of a Geek Social Fallacy.

I've been in a lot of sessions of games where I've suspected that the GM is either fudging dice rolls, palette shifting, or otherwise resorting to fiat to "make the game fun", and believe me, on every occasion that I suspected this, it made the game many orders of magnitude less fun than it was before. Suddenly, I didn't feel like a player in a game - I felt like a participant in an interactive story: I felt like the whole thing was a bait-and-switch. I no longer felt like I was master of my own destiny, and instead had become a participant in somebody else's prescribed idea of what my own fun should be.

This is the strongest argument I know of against fudging dice rolls, palette shifting, quantum ogres, and anything of that ilk: if you're going to do it, you'd better either:
a) be of Al Pacino-like stature in terms of your acting, because otherwise the players (if they have a brain in their skull and a rudimentary understanding of human nature) will be onto you and they probably won't like it; 
b) have a group of players who don't mind you robbing them of agency - in which case, you may as well just tell them what you're doing and forget rolling dice and giving them choices entirely (at least in the scenarios where you've already decided what's going to happen).

Here endeth today's rant.


  1. I've been in a lot of sessions of games where I've suspected that the GM is either fudging dice rolls, palette shifting, or otherwise resorting to fiat to "make the game fun",

    of course you have. everybody has.

    but how often has it happended without anyone noticing? ;)

  2. Yeah, my first reaction in that thread was to agree with the guy who noted, the DM is a player too.

    What kind of DM has fun watching their plans unfold to spec no matter what the players do? I can't conceive of having fun that way, and I'd suspect a personality disorder in anyone who did.

  3. That's pretty funny, yeah, body language is the 800 lb gorilla in the room. I've had an issue with viewing agency from the player's perspective; just as it's easy to imagine facts (like Korg admits) where palette shifting should seem undetectable based on player knowledge, it's just as easy to imagine facts where the players feel rail roaded, or that their choices don't matter, even when the DM is playing it straight. Player knowledge is a poor standard. The only solution to me that makes sense from the DM side of the table is don't rail road, and let the rest take care of itself - and you'll always have the right body language, too. :)

  4. An illusionistic DM is like someone who lights their house with ONLY candles.

    I have nothing against candle-light--but if I CAN'T have electric light that implies there's all kindsa much more important things I can't get (internet, refrigerator...) there's infrastructure that I might want to use and enjoy that I'm missing out on because the DM's too lazy to hook the game up to the grid.

    In other words: it's the symptom that something potentially fun is missing.

    Real choice requires and implies a working world. A working world allows for a large number of interactive and complex possibilities.

  5. I feel kind of stupid, because I don't really get this discussion. I mean, you just linked five different posts, fairly lengthy, plus your own. I've read a couple, skimmed a couple others, and all I can glean from them is "don't play shell games with your players". Is there some complexity here I don't understand?

  6. shlominus: Haha, yeah, the hidden iceberg of GM illusionism!

    Roger the GS: I agree.

    Beedo: I agree with you too.

    Zak: I agree with you three.

    John: Not really. I don't think the issue is complexity, just different of opinion. Is it okay for the GM to shift things around behind the scenes or not? is basically what it boils down to, I think.

  7. Call me Al Pacino.

    The truth is however, I'm not Al Pacino, I'm just some guy GMing and I do (fairly often) fudge and adjust the dice rolls based on the actions of the players.

    That is, if a player's idea is tactically sound and highly entertaining both, I will secret give him a bonus to his or her roll in my head.

    I will do the same with penalties for bad ideas, ones that fail to take things I've mentioned repeatedly into account, etc.

    This has been happening for many, many years and not just in my games but the games of many, many GMs.

    So I guess the whole discuss seems a bit silly and moot.

    You don't have to be an Oscar winning actor. You need to be a GM. My players have no clue when I'm fudging, when I'm not or whatever. As a result, they worry less about the rule mechanics and dice and more about what's happening in the game as it has a greater effect on the results.

    I apologize if this isn't exactly what you're talking about but it's the best I can do to understand your post.

  8. Barking Alien: I think it's totally cool to do that, but I wonder why you don't tell the players you do it?

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. ...and yet both Zak's "indifferent god" and Jeff's "excellent, excellent" DM presentations seem to work pretty well as anxiety-producing poker faces.

    My point is, all the arguments around this have tended toward some sort of ideal absolutism that I don't think anyone really plays. Sometimes the DM can pull a switch on the players without them realising, sometimes not. If the DM feels no guilt about moving an encounter they're more likely to get away with it. But on a deeper, harder to discuss, level there's ad hoc design and threat level manipulation and expectation-setting going on all the time: every utterance in a conversation is an act of manipulation.

    I see Roger has his own post on this now. It would be nice if we had a single forum where we could have a big discussion about it, maybe (although then I probably wouldn't attend...).

  11. Richard: I agree with you absolutely, but there's nothing wrong with aspiring to an ideal without reaching it, is there?

    I guess that I subconsciously and consciously rob players of agency quite a lot. But I can try to rein in those impulses and thus improve as a GM.

  12. I'm *amazed* at the number of people who think that the players can't tell when their fudging.

    Or maybe it's the thought that since they can't tell what roll the DM is cheating on, that they don't know the DM is cheating.

    If you've ever worked in law enforcement or social services you discover how terrible most people are at lying. The best liars either make a career out of it (re: poker) or have B Cluster personality traits.

  13. I guess that I subconsciously and consciously rob players of agency quite a lot. But I can try to rein in those impulses and thus improve as a GM.

    I find it interesting that you correlate reigning in your actions that negate player agency with improving your skill as a GM.

    One could posit that you could also improve your skill as a GM by improving your skill at hiding those 'tells'.

    Also, I think the concept of the GM illusionist iceberg is probably the best descriptor for my position on the subject.

    You may be able to tell a few times when your choices became meaningless, but if you didn't, those choices gain the appearance of being meaningful regardless of "what really happened."

  14. Of course, once you discover one choice was invalidated, no choice from then on can ever be trusted.

  15. Kevin: I take your point, but it seems like you're basically advocating becoming more skilled at creating an intricate web of lies and hoping that the players don't really notice.

    It seems safer, and considerably less effort, not to be an illusionist. If there is no illusion at all then it can't be shattered, and it's a very simple thing to just let the dice fall as they fall and play the map as it stands.

  16. True, but that I contend that weakens my role at the table and actually increases the agency of the dice and rules instead.

    Isn't the GM supposed to be the judge, the arbiter and translator of events?

    Or is the GM simply supposed to look up things in books and cite charts in a mostly reactionary mode to the players and dice?

    (Hyperbole used intentionally to make the point more noticeable. Don't attack the words, focus on the intent of my dichotomy of GM role offerings please.)

  17. True, but that I contend that weakens my role at the table and actually increases the agency of the dice and rules instead.

    Isn't the GM supposed to be the judge, the arbiter and translator of events?

    Agency is when someone makes a choice. Dice and rules do not make choices, so their agency can not be increased.

    By not fudging dice (cheating), and not moving encounters around (eliminating choices), you role as an impartial adjudicator, i.e. judge, i.e. arbiter, is somehow weakened?

  18. I'd probably just echo what -C said in response, Kevin.

    Judges and arbitrators (professional ones) are supposed to be neutral. If they aren't, they are bad at their job.

    I see the role of a GM as being similar to that of a judge; he examines the facts, he listens to all sides, then he adjudicates impartially with the aid of impartial tools - dice. This is not helped by shifting things round behind the scenes.

  19. I am quite surprised that no one has mentioned the elephant in the room.

    Desdemona Syndrome.

    When you don't fudge die rolls, don't create illusionary choices and don't rob players of victory or defeat. But the players think you do and lose fun because of it.

    People aren't good at figuring out when they are being lied to. People are good at suspecting they are being lied to regardless of if they are or not. Proof is then demanded that one is honest. This is why a court of law has to be set up very different than a court of public opinion.

    So the true GM trick isn't giving player agency, it letting the players know they have agency, it is trying to convince them they have agency. This is not impacted by whether or not they actually have agency.

    You may not be Al Pacino, but just being honest doesn't mean you will be believed.

    So, game with people you trust not to lie to you and don't lie to them. Players in my games have full agency because I demand they entertain me. I made the damn sandbox, least you can do is make something awesome happen with it.

  20. Zzarchov: Actually, I think people are quite good at figuring out when they're being lied to - they're just usually polite about not calling other people out about it.

    But that's by-the-by. I'm interested in your view of players as being innately suspicious. Whether it is true or not (I have no idea), there's a very simple way of building trust with them as the DM: rolling your dice in front of them. That's what I do and it works every time.

  21. By not fudging dice (cheating), and not moving encounters around (eliminating choices), you role as an impartial adjudicator, i.e. judge, i.e. arbiter, is somehow weakened?

    Yes. Because what you're doing by advocating for the elimination of the GMs ability to palette shift is to hamstring GM agency to be subservient to unthinking deterministic processes or never change from an outflow of agency in the past.

    The GM has to give the illusion that the gaming universe is reactionary to the agency of the players. Otherwise it robs agency of impact... and denies that agency outright.

  22. Kevin, I'm having a hard time understanding that last comment. The gaming universe is reactionary to the agency of the players if it is impartial, just like how the real world is reactionary to your agency while being impartial.

    When you bang your head against a wall, you are exercising your agency, and when that hurts, that is the real world reacting to your agency in an impartial fashion.

    Or is there something I'm missing here?

  23. Perhaps that's the real crux (as identified by -C earlier on my blog) of why we're not going to come to a consensus on this.

    In my view the role of the GM isn't an autonomous, impartial arbiter akin to some natural deterministic process.

    Instead, in my view the GM takes the role of making the universe interesting and somewhat catered to the player. It's the GMs job to be slightly on the player's side without making it obvious.

    As Tom put it in 1980:
    The DM is there to see that the adventure is interesting and that everyone enjoys the game.

    I still see that as the real role of the GM today.

  24. Instead, in my view the GM takes the role of making the universe interesting and somewhat catered to the player.

    What is it about being impartial that implies the universe is not interesting or catered to the player?

    You create a world full of interesting things, with an interesting map, loads of interesting areas to explore, loads of interesting NPCs to interact with, loads of interesting random encounters. And you adjudicate the players' interaction with all these things impartially. What in this scenario is not interesting or catered to the player? And what about it suggests that the players will not have fun with it?

    Out of interest, do you think that Risk, Monopoly, football, and chess are fun? Do you think it matters that the rules of those games are entirely impartial, when it comes to generating interest?

    Obviously I am missing something.

  25. One aspect I've nit seen touched on is the fallibility of the DM. Taking the TPK situations I've seen used in the examples (and nOt making an explicit value judgement on whether a TPK is inherently a good or bad thing), a DM can be equally responsibly for a TPK as one or more of the players.
    A lot of people who like to think they are expert DMs might well be, but probably only in their blinkered view if how a game 'should' be run/played.
    A DM, like any player, can make a mistake - it's their role to assess the players/PCs capabilities and bring in varied challenges accordingly. A fudge on a dice roll is often as much about covering the DMs blemishes, a little foundation or concealer, and done with the aim of preserving the fun ( again whatever the flavour of fun the current campaign dictates) isn't always a bad thing

  26. You seem to be moving the goalposts on me.

    What I'm saying is not that impartial isn't fun, but when the game isn't fun (or could be more fun,) I believe I (as the GM) have the responsibility to try to adjust the universe to make it (more) fun.

    Your board game analogy doesn't hold sway unless we remove the GM from the equation and just allow the dice and rulebooks and pre-made modules/adventures to determine play. If that's the case of an equivalent example, then what's the role of the GM there?

    Alternately, ask yourself why Risk, Monopoly, and even football don't have a GM? Because they're structurally different and allow for a different form and impact of player agency.

  27. (actually I'd argue most TPKs are the fault if the DM more often than not, but that's another tangent for another day)

  28. Complete aside: The entirety of this conceptual argument (the Quantum Ogre/the role of the GM/etc.) is a great discussion that I'm very much enjoying being a part of.

    I've found myself at times even looking back and reconsidering some of my opinions as to the nature of how the game should be played.

    I appreciate that we all have kept this dialogue open.

  29. I believe I (as the GM) have the responsibility to try to adjust the universe to make it (more) fun.

    The point that just blows this out of the water for me is how does invalidating my decisions by either fudging the dice or changing encounters make the game more fun for me.

  30. The point that just blows this out of the water for me is how does invalidating my decisions by either fudging the dice or changing encounters make the game more fun for me.

    And I disagree.

    Your point (as presented in the original argument) seem to be predicated upon the presumption that doing so necessarily robs your game of fun.

    I hold to the belief that if you don't know I've done so, your level of fun cannot necessarily be impacted in the absence of correlative evidence.

    Further I also consider your presumption that invalidating your choice necessarily yields less fun in the first place a flawed argument since the nature of the game is one wherein some choices are meaningful while others are false.

    This doesn't negate your opinion, I simply disagree.

  31. You still haven't answered the question.

    Let's assume that your points flow - that removing agency, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary doesn't necessarily reduce my fun.

    How then does invalidating my decisions by fudging dice or changing encounters make the game more fun?

  32. That's a broad subject worthy of more blog posts but in general leads us to knowing your audience, reading a crowd, and the subjective nature and definition of fun.

    My opinion (from a 30,000 foot view) for RPGs is that the fun for the players comes from overcoming challenges.

    While I'm not advocating putting your game on training wheels or making sure everything is appropriately challenge-rated, if you rob the GM of the ability to palette shift challenge level appropriately from time to time, you rob the game of fun because you rob the GM of the ability to adjust challenge.

    Do the characters need to fail periodically? Certainly.
    Do the characters need to be faced with challenges beyond their skill? Without doubt.

    But should the GM be forced to idly sit by and watch as decisions made at the time of the encounter/adventure creation are interacted with, without any allowance to adjust on the fly to react to the player's agency? Nope, not at all.

  33. Maybe there's no answer for this, or maybe I'm just very confused, but I still don't understand what it is you are doing that's making it more fun.

    The only actual example I see is you mentioning pallet-shifting to make sure the encounter was challenging. Didn't Oblivion teach us that this is a bad idea?

    And I'm most curious as to how and what objective metric you're using to decide when to fudge and pallet switch and when not to. I mean, how do you decide 'I'm going to make this encounter weaker' versus 'I'm going to a make this one stronger' versus 'I'm going to have the players automatically win this fight if it looks like they are going to lose'?

  34. @kevin

    "making the adventure fun" is what you do when you don't have the chops to "make the world so fun anything that happens in it,no matter how cruel, is fun" or "GM fun, so that no matter how horrific the circumstances you narrate, it's fun".

    As for being able to see the rails:

    I may or may not be able to see when I've been herded down a GM-created tunnel, but you best believe I can ALWAYS tell when the circumstances I'm in are of my own--or my party's--devising, and that shit is fun.

    Maybe I can't always sense the negative (lack of player agency) but I LOVE the feeling of the positive (seeing it in action right there in the game)

  35. That is to say - didn't you decide all that when you generated the adventure/terrain/encounter tables?

    Once I start exerting my agency, what advantage is gained by shifting all that around?

  36. Being a convincing actor or liar is a far more difficult skill to master than being able to notice a not convincing actor or liar. That's why all of us can say whether we think Shia LaBeouf did a good job in Indiana Jones 4, but I *guarantee* that nobody posting here could have done as good a job. Even with 25+ years of D&D practice you are not Al Pacino. :D

    If you were really that good you would be working in Film/TV or a professional Poker player.

  37. And I'm most curious as to how and what objective metric you're using to decide when to fudge and pallet switch and when not to. I mean, how do you decide 'I'm going to make this encounter weaker' versus 'I'm going to a make this one stronger' versus 'I'm going to have the players automatically win this fight if it looks like they are going to lose'?

    I read my audience, I gauge probable outcomes, I make educated guesses... that's how.

    Otherwise, what's the point of my presence? Should the game not be, on some level, interactive for all players? Do I not have some agency at the table as well? Or did I use up my agency quota at design time?

    If that's the case, why am I present? Why aren't we all just creating NeverWinter Nights modules and reading Choose Your Own Adventure books or board games?

    Designer agency ends for those things when they're completed.
    RPGs are different in that they evolve - even during gameplay. Hence the role of the GM.

  38. Kevin: None of what your saying undermines the force of our argument. You can have agency as a GM by controlling NPCs, fleshing out the game world, and figuring out the implications of the players' actions. They go down a dungeon and come back to town with a heck of a lot of gold. Now what happens? What does the mayor think? Is there anybody who might want to steal it? Might a powerful talent-spotting wizard decide to check them out? All of this is down to GM agency, doesn't require illusionism, and doesn't require partiality.

  39. Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from...

    Matrix quotes FTW!

    Noisms: I've been thinking about the NPC "problem" and GM Agency; if the DM wholly decides *all* NPC reactions, is this too on the scale of contrivance? (Ie, NPC X will always react a certain way...) For myself, I think I may always do some kind of reaction roll, skewed or not, to keep a small possibility open for an unexpected response.

    For myself, it might actually be more fun to have to improvise unexpected results (while minimizing bias).

  40. @Zak S

    "making the adventure fun" is what you do when you don't have the chops to "make the world so fun anything that happens in it,no matter how cruel, is fun" or "GM fun, so that no matter how horrific the circumstances you narrate, it's fun".

    Again that strikes me as coming close to a "You're doing it wrong" style argument. In addition, it's an impossible and completely irrelevant metric by which to measure the skill or chops of a GM. What measures a good GM is the enjoyment of the players regardless of the methodology of play. (i.e. To each their own.)


    How are any of your "Bow what happens?" examples not possible illusions in their own right? As a player I can't really know unless you tell me.


    Again, I'm not advocating putting your game on training wheels where success is inevital.

    What point success were not defeat risked?


    Let's take another look at the quantum ogre and the role of the GM as it applies to player perspective with a very simple example:

    Characters enter room with doors A and B.
    In order to facilitate some player agency and make their choice meaningful, the players have the foreknowledge that behind one door is a possible trap, behind the other a path to freedom.

    Please identify to me which situation has been palette shifted.

    1. Players choose a door and are met with a trap. Damage and ice rolls go bad, TPK.
    2. Players choose a door and are confronted with an ogre. Combat ensues, the players are victorious and find freedom.
    3. Players choose a door, meet no obstacles and find freedom.
    4. Players choose a door, find an ogre, are vanquished in a TPK.
    5. Players choose a door, find an ogre, defeat it but find no exit.

    You can't. That's my point about the quantum ogre being relativistic.

    Or how about this less contrived and more realistic one:

    Late in a game, the characters are deep in the catacombs of a manor house seeking clues to disappearances and strange occurrances in a nearby villaige.
    Everyone at the table knows the BBEG is a vampire, all the clues are there. We've all played these scenarios too much and it's just the most logical and obvious reason for the situation.
    The characters find a crypt with a coffin during their searches.
    As the GM I already pre-determined that the coffin is a ruse (fake) would be empty and the vampire (who is confortably resting in another coffin in a hidden chamber) would continue a game of socially antagonistic cat and mouse with the characters.
    However, I can tell that the players are really invested in the whole, "We've just caught the BBEG unawares and are about to reinact a classic scene..." vibe.
    I palette shift the vampire to the coffin and have the villain awake just as the stakes are prepared...

    The players have no clue I've palette shifted an encounter and the vampire is actually a Quantum Ogre. And I'd argue they don't really care either.

  41. Noisms:

    I don't think players are inherently suspicious. I think people are.

    Rolling dice is only half of the "quantum ogre", the fact that the ogre is magically ambushing them no matter which road they go down or which door they open is another thing.

    You can share notes and anything else you wish, but lets go back to dice.

    Needing to roll the dice in the open is a sure sign to me that players (as all people) are inherently suspicious. Otherwise rolling in secret wouldn't be a problem either as long as they actually had agency, but the lack of proof means they will start being suspicious even if you are being totally legit and honest in your rolls. Lack of proof breeds suspicion.

  42. Kevin: How are any of your "Bow what happens?" examples not possible illusions in their own right? As a player I can't really know unless you tell me.

    Or I can use my human judgement and smell a rat. As I wrote in the post - this has happened to me on numerous occasions. It makes the game less fun when it does.

    In any case, as has been said many times, you as the DM know what you are doing. So illusion creation and palette shifting have two consequences:

    1. It probably makes the game a bit less fun for you (no surprises, no riffing on the creativity of the players), unless you derive your fun from just having the players jump through hoops. (I'm not saying you do this; I'm using the general "you".)

    2. It makes your own sense of your own game world less plausible, and thus probably manifests itself in certain "tells" by which the players can sense something isn't quite right or they're being duped/led by the nose. This is an important point: it's difficult to maintain plausibility if you're lying all the time.

    Your examples are not really very good ones because they miss out what Beedo called the 800lb gorilla in the room: you're just describing situations in writing to a group of anonymous strangers. We have no verbal cues, no shared history, no knowledge of you and your personality, no insight into your body language. Your players have all those things.

    Now, it may be the case that your players don't mind palette shifting and whatnot. In which case fine, more power to you all - but I have to then wonder what the point of even pretending is. If they know you're doing it and you know you're doing it, why keep up the illusion? In fact, why even have the D&D rules, the dungeon map, the ogre stats? Why not just sit around and come up with shared stories? There are options for doing that - you don't have to rely on D&D any more. Play a story game like Apocalypse World or Primetime Adventures, which has rules for the kind of thing you seem to be advocating, and just create a narrative you all enjoy. There's really no reason to resort to the kind of shenanigans you're advocating, nowadays.

    Zzarchov: I don't really understand what point you're making here, I'm sorry. As I said, whether or not players are innately suspicious (I don't know if they are or not) I roll my dice in the open so everybody can see the results. I'm not sure in what sense your comment responds to that.

  43. @kevin


    I may never know you palette shifted the vampire. However as a player I will easily figure out, after a while, that I'm playing in the kind of game where no matter how much information I gather or what I think up or what reconnaissance I do or what spells I cast, the vampires will tend to be in the last place I look for them.

    If I'm playing a campaign-centric game like D&D, then that dramatically limits the fun and the challenge. If I know I never find the monster til SCENE 3 know matter how hard I try, then I don't have to try as hard.

    And "having to try hard" is most of the fun.

    The problem isn't moving the vampire--the problem is all the worldbuilding work or improvisational skill you -don't- develop and all the weird unexpected PC-produced twists you -don't- get to see in your game because it's easier to just lean on a quantum vampire.

    There's nothing wrong with a veggie burger that fools me into thinking it's meat. The problem is when you think you can imitate any real meat burger in the world using only veggie. You can't. There's a whole world of burgers you miss out on.

  44. Now, it may be the case that your players don't mind palette shifting and whatnot. In which case fine, more power to you all - but I have to then wonder what the point of even pretending is. If they know you're doing it and you know you're doing it, why keep up the illusion?

    But somehow I feel you're missing my entire point. For the illusionism to "rob fun" from the players, one has to presume they know and further presume they'll have less fun in the game knowing it's happened.
    That's a lot of presumptions.

    In fact, why even have the D&D rules, the dungeon map, the ogre stats? Why not just sit around and come up with shared stories? There are options for doing that - you don't have to rely on D&D any more.

    Again I could counter that what you're advocating is to play the scenario as a board or computer game, devoid of any meaningful, at game-time agency from the GM.

    There's really no reason to resort to the kind of shenanigans you're advocating, nowadays.

    I think the vampire example stands in contradiction to this statement. Arguably we'll never know if the amount of fun had playing it straight would have been different from the way it was played, but we also don't know if the letdown of not being able to reenact the classic scene would have soured the event and led to a perceived illusionism (oh sure Kev, there's a SECRET room with another coffin... sure, you just don't want us to kill off your BBEG yet.) and the shenanigans (as you put it) led to an encounter that met the expectations and desires of the players. I know they had fun.

  45. For the illusionism to "rob fun" from the players, one has to presume they know and further presume they'll have less fun in the game knowing it's happened. That's a lot of presumptions.

    Not really. I'd presume they're not stupid, and not being stupid that they will eventually figure out something is up. They may still have fun but not as much fun as they would have been had they not had the "oh..." moment when they realized you're moving things around behind the scenes and there's some level of illusion to their choices and successes.

    I'll concede that if you had really young or naive players you might be able to keep the illusion going for a lot longer. Few parents are able to keep their kids believing in Santa into their teen years though.

  46. @Zak


    I'm not advocating palette shifting and illusionism and fudging every dice roll be employed every time.

    I'm stating that it's simply a tool at the GMs disposal. Like all good tools, overuse blunts it's effectiveness.

    Good games lead to interesting choices because they're presented with imperfect information. Not despite it. That's the ultimate lesson of the dice. Why can't that also be the lesson of selective illusionism?

    To avoid using the tool because of some belief that it robs the game of fun is just wrong in my view.

  47. @kevin

    Ok, then how much is too much?

    Like, in a 3-hour session, how often, approximately, is it ok for a DM in a "campaignish" (not like Cthulhu or something) RPG like D&D to:

    -present PCs with choices with so little information given that the DM has "plausible deniability" if A, B, or C all lead to consequence D,


    -make a PC-initiated or declared NPC-initiated task seem like it was in the hands of the mechanics when it's not (and not for an in-game reason, but because you decided it wasn't)

    before it all starts to unravel? In your opinion?

    Because my feeling is if you're doing it at all, then you're doing it for some -reason- and the reason itself is what;s suspicious.

    The technique itself is like ok whatever, what I wanna know is, why use it? What are you afraid of? TPK? (Why? That means it's a challenge) Player stasis? (Why? Let them get their asses in gear and wnat something) Having to improvise or prep more stuff?

  48. I dunno. How long is a piece of string?

    As for why, I thought I'd made that clear. In my opinion it's the GMs role to foster an environment where the game exciting, challenging and fun.

    I believe that responsibility falls on all players at the table, but doubly so for the GM. And it doesn't only fall on the GMs shoulders during design/planning time, it continues throughout the session.

    That's why I'm willing to shift and cast illusions.

  49. Kevin: You're missing my point, I think, because I've already set out the answers to your questions above and I'd just be reiterating.

    To go back to a point I made earlier, I really recommend you pick up some story games like Apocalypse World, Primetime Adventures, In A Wicked Age, or Mouseguard, and give them a whirl. These are the sort of games where you can play the kind of game you want to play and where the rules explicitly support it, where D&D's don't.

  50. noisms:

    Fair enough. We covered a lot of ground here but are probably in the "lather, rinse, repeat" phase of the discussion at present.

    I was going to pick up on the fact that I believe while D&D may not explicitly support such play, it certainly isn't lessened for it. But after re-reading and emphasizing the "explicit" callout, I'd gather we're just arguing the minutia and definitions at this point.

    Good discussion though. I'm glad I could be a part of it.

  51. @kevin

    Saying "I do (anything) to make the game exciting, challenging and/or fun" is like asking a mechanic what a hemi- engine is for and he says "to make the car go better".

    What specific non-"exciting, challenging, and/or fun" consequencess do you fear if you don't illusionize?


    What is an negative example of a consequence that might ensue if you fail to do this?

  52. Zak S:

    I've given a number of examples (some contrived and some not) on my blog as well as here. But to be honest, you're asking a question in a vacuum and I can't really answer it well.

    Some negative outcomes might include: TPK, boredom, tedium, lack of involvement, frustration, anxiety, fear, but also certainty, confidence, etc.

    In like fashion, ironically, some positive outcomes might include: TPK, anxiety, fear, suspense, uncertainty but also certainty, confidence, etc.

    Illusionism is situational and the outcome also situation dependent. The goal is fostering fun, not forcing it to occur. Nothing more.

  53. @kevin

    You're being vague again. "I put the hemi in because if I didn't it might not run as good and people would be sad, anxious, worried.."

    It's totally cool if you've already stated a specific example and don't want to repeat it, just tell me where it is. I can't find one but maybe I'm not looking hard enough.

  54. I don't understand what the advantage is to shifting stuff around.

  55. Noisms:

    My apology, might be some poor wording on my choice looking back.

    Rolling dice in the open is great. It is pretty much a requirement because whether or not you are granting player agency if people cannot see the dice they may choose to disbelieve you are being fair, regardless of if you are.

    Poor Desdemona did not cheat on Othello but he strangled her because he thought she did.

    So if you give players agency but hide your rolls they may "smell a rat" even though none exists and declare they do not have agency and have their fun spoiled.

    Likewise if you roll loaded dice and show the results they are less likely to "smell a rat" even though they have no agency. As such their fun will not be spoiled.

    This becomes important because the nature of the quantum ogre isn't dice rolls, its the ogre.

    How to players know that agency is or is not being denied for something in your notes? You can provide campaign notes afterwards, but unless you want no ability for mystery then you may still get people thinking you changed the notes after the fact.

    Net result is that roll the dice in the open, don't roll the dice in the open: If players don't trust you as a GM not to fuck with them, nothing you do will prove a negative.

  56. Zak -

    In your first comment you were critical of the "illusionist" DM as someone who uses only candles, and refuses to use electric light. While you had "nothing against" candles, you thought that electric light was very useful indeed.

    Your later posts appear to be taking a hard-line stance that candles are entirely useless and only a fool would employ them (or, to use your second analogy, veggie burgers always suck and meat is supreme).

    So here's an example for you of where illusionism can be the best (or at least a good) approach. At a given time, I may happen to have three fun ideas for NPC farmer personalities in my head--one may include a good adventure hook. Say the players happen to go on a cattle-buying spree next session (maybe they decide it would be a good idea to use a herd of the beasts to entice a dragon or something), so they go from farm to farm, dealing with the farmers. If there are ten potential farms in the lands surrounding Ivan City, I have three possibilities:

    (1) I have engaged in such deeply impressive worldbuilding that I already have a personality set out for each and every farmer in the region (the world?), so it doesn't matter which one they go to, I already have in my encyclopedic treatise of notes that (e.g.) the farmer in the hex north-northeast of Ivan City is an irascible, mean-spirited halfling who raises sorghum and lost his right hand in a cheese-making accident.

    (2) I look up and roll on an NPC personality table for each farmer they encounter.

    (3) I use my three farmer personality ideas at the first three farms they go to, regardless of whether they are the pastures north of town, or the ones to the southeast. I may even throw my farm-based adventure hook in the first farm, because I may not get a chance to use it again, and I think it would give the players a fun possibility.

    How to choose!

    You may criticize me as "lazy" or somesuch, but option (1) is simply not going to happen. As DMs all of us only have a certain amount of time and brainspace we can devote to worldbuilding. Nobody has every conceivable detail figured out. This option simply will not work for most people (and it will not for me).

    Option (2) is a possibility, and can be fun. It has the advantage of being organic, and of possibly leading to intriguing NPC I'd never have thought of on the fly (The farmer is a .... [rolls] dwarf ... with .... [rolls] nineteen children ... he is .... [rolls] of a serene, Zenlike disposition. ... "

    But I can see no reason that option (3) is not also a good choice. It allows me to drop an adventure hook--which the players were not railroaded into per se, they're the ones who chose to go to a farm. They may blow it off completely, or they may not. It lets the NPCs be a bit more fleshed out than they would be under (2), because they're already constructed in my head, and it is more streamlined than (2), and doesn't require me to spend 5 minutes looking up and rolling on tables while the players twiddle their thumbs. Also, the players aren't likely to be too offended that the personalities of these NPCs—who they may interact with for 2 minutes apiece—are not purely the product of their own “agency” or of the dice. I doubt it is something that they will think about at all.

    So while (3) technically employs "quantum" farmers, there is no reason it is not a perfectly fine option.

    (Caveat: I'm not as deeply involved in this debate/discussion as others, so I may be entirely missing or misunderstanding something... apologies if so).

  57. @ivan

    To me that's just improvising (using what's in your head when unexpected circumstances occur), not palette shifting UNTIL the DM decides nothing the PCs can possibly do will change the farmer-metting order, then it's palette-shifting.

    Using the 3 farmers in a predetermined order means you have pre-seeded exactly when "plot hook x" or "Interesting NonAgricultural Conversation Y" will show up no matter how much asking around about these farmers the PCs do before actual visiting the farms.

    The test comes here:

    Can the PCs, BEFORE MEETING THESE 3, acquire enough information in the course of play ("Wait, Barkeep, you're saying Farmer A is Scottish? We don't want to talk to him!") to make the GM have to re-arrange his/her plan to present them in a given order.(whether the PCs take the opportunity or not).

    If they can, you;re giving them a meaningful choice about a meaningful encounter and not truly "palette-shifting". If no matter what they do beforehand the PCs will meet Farmer McScottish first, Farmer McPlothook second and Farmer VonExAristocrat Third than you have a (minor) example of palette shifting.

    And, really, at this point I am not saying "palette shift and you shall be burned!" I'm just ask what possible advantage is being gained by doing it or how often you;d expect a DM to do it and Kevin is refusing to give a detailed answer or at least point to some place he has.

    I am asking a question and want to know the answer to it.

    In your example, you haven't provided any reason why you wouldn't be willing to move the farmers around if the PCs gathered intelligence on them first and made some choices.

  58. Zzarchov: Are you trying to say that the players won't trust you no matter what you do, so why not just be an illusionist DM?

    That seems like a strange argument: the most we can say is that there is a mixture of suspicious and non-suspicious players. All other things being equal, if as a DM you play it straight, at worst the suspicious players will not trust you but the non-suspicious ones will.

    But if you're an illusionist the suspicious players will fail to trust you, and eventually, because you're an illusionist and your illusion can't be perfect, the non-suspicious players will come to stop trusting you and become suspicious players too. It's much the worst of the two options.

  59. @zzarchov

    Whenever my players bitch about their situation I just tell them the chain of their own decisions that lead to it. "There was absolutely no-one telling you to jump down the whale's blowhole, there were no plot hooks pointing you toward this island (in fact they were all pointing to other places) and nobody said you had to use the 5th gate instead of the 4th one."

    If you;ve really got a sandbox going, even the dullest and most suspicious players will be able to see the flowchart if the DM lays it out for them and shows them all the maps and tables after the fact.

    Do that a few times. they'll get it.

  60. @Noisms

    My argument is not that you should be an illusionist GM. I am not myself.

    The point I am making is that the distinction is false one.

    The distinction is do the players trust you when you tell them their decisions matter and that you are giving them agency.

    If they believe you (whether or not you are lying) they are happy. If they do not believe you (even if you are running a sandbox game) they are unhappy.

    The real question isn't "sandbox VS railroad" its "how to make your players trust you".

    The individual GM can then decide if he wants to betray that trust through "illusion" or not.

  61. @Zzarchov ...and unless the GM is Al Pacino / Poker Pro level (back to the premise of the post) they will eventually do something that makes their players suspect they are doing the Lord of Illusions thing, and stop believing them. :)

  62. Sorry all, took a weekend away from the computer and instead spent it with my family.

    Consider my absence a pause, not a bowing out of the discussion.

    @Stuart: If used sparingly (and not like a sledge) as a tool of the GM, illusionism is lost in the signal noise of random and predetermined and improvisation. Even should a player suspect they've been provided a false choice when they believed it was a meaningful one, unless that player is untrustworthy by nature, or has some additional reason to begrudge the GM, they would need further evidence such an event has occurred.

    Barring that, their perception (even in light of the suspicion) will probably find ways of making meaning of the palette shift.

    I'll grant that any player can see the rails if they're employed often and with a heavy hand. But used with a light touch from time to time, the illusion becomes the result of choice.

    I find it interesting that for those who contend they can always tell when they're being manipulated by the GM also seem to find it improbable that the GM can do something similar and read the players (and then fold those desires into the game.) Strange that.

    I contend the players are constantly giving the GM clues as to what they desire; they're actively engaged in providing tells where the GM is not.

    Presumably these are not random strangers you're playing with, so it's likely you can read their desires well.

    Arguably they may know your tells as well, but when faced with the suspicion that you've just moved things around on them, they have to also weigh that suspicion against the probability they're mistaken.

    If you palette shift to fun, always to the desires of the players, do so sparingly and with a light touch, then the illusion will be successful more times than not. And if it's done successfully, then it never really occurred for the players.

  63. @Zak: My vampire location example is one taken from a game where I believe I palette shifted. The players had knowledge that the vampire's true home lay in a secret chamber, but to their surprise this "apparently" wasn't "really" the case.

    I firmly and honestly believe the players had more fun facing the BBEG in that encounter than they would have in the "hidden chamber" after additional RP and searching. Of course, we'll never know if that was the case, but I think I can read my player's desires fairly well.

    I can remember how much fun the session went, how everyone talked about it for the next couple weeks, but I might have been fooling myself.

    So I went so far this weekend as to contact a handful of the players in that game and specifically ask (without hopefully being too leading) what their memories of the session were.

    * I asked them how enjoyable the session was: Consensus - Great to Awesome. I even got one "Best session ever!"
    * I asked them what they thought I could have dome to improve the scenario: Consensus - Little to Nothing. One even indicated that I should have let them find the secret caverns under the manor house quicker. (That's significant because apparently in that player's reality, the entire area under the manor was the "secret lair." And from this players frame of reference, nothing I could have done to move the vampire would have been an illusion.)
    * Like serendipity, this was a perfect segue and so I asked the rest of them what they thought of the information that the vampire's lair was in a hidden, secret chamber. They answered as follows:

    ** One assumed that the vampire obviously spread this information in order to prevent people from seeking him out.
    ** One agreed with the player who thought the entire catacombs were secret.
    ** One had forgotten about that piece of information entirely.

    The consensus: from the player's perspectives, they had reasoned away the palette shift until it no longer existed.

    * Finally, I asked if they thought the scenario should have gone on longer with more of a cat and mouse game between the characters and the vampire. The overwhelming consensus was that they really enjoyed the way the game turned out and they felt they'd gotten the upper hand, not only on the BBEG, but on me as the GM. Any change would have possibly cheapened the climactic battle between the vamp and the characters.

    ** One indicated that the feel of the game that night was perfect; the adjectives he used were spooky, creepy, dark, epic. He said that's exactly what he wanted from a horror adventure. He reminded me that the next session was played in the afternoon. From his point of reference, he said he always felt like it was one of those games when the outside influences helped to make the inside of the game more memorable and congratulated me for bringing both to the table at the same time. (Somehow in his mind I planned to have the vampire appear during that session because of reasons entirely different than the "real" reason I palette shifted - so in his reality I probably palette shifted, but it was to the enjoyment of the game. That by itself is an incredibly interesting answer.)

    Now some will read this and contend that I'm cherry picking. But you did ask for an example where palette shifting led to an enjoyable outcome. There it is.

  64. I should add that the preceding example also lends credence to my belief that the quantum ogre only exists if it is known to a player, and furthermore is only an issue if the ogre is presented in opposition to the player's desires.

  65. Why on earth are you calling this Palette shifting?

    I mean more what is the palette that you are shifting?

    I can see the term being applied to changing the tone, particularly in games like 4e where the fights stay mostly the same apart from the minions turning from goblins to demons. You know the pallet is the set of monsters and type of challenges you might be facing, and you shift it ut for another one.

    Equally it could apply to a random table with entries that correspond to different types of terrain; rolled an elephant underground? Change it for a giant worm.

    But I can't see any relevance of that word to what your talking about!

  66. Josh W:

    In an effort to retain continuity of discussion, I'm just using the terminology from the post I originally formulated my arguments against the Quantum Ogre.

    Here's the post that brought the use of the term to my attention:

  67. Kevin: I find it interesting that for those who contend they can always tell when they're being manipulated by the GM also seem to find it improbable that the GM can do something similar and read the players (and then fold those desires into the game.) Strange that.

    Kevin, you're not getting it. It's not that I find that improbable. It's that I find it manipulative and a little bit distasteful when it is used to impose a prescribed idea of fun and deprive the players of agency whether they know it or not.

    Ultimately it doesn't matter whether the players know it or not - you know, as the DM, and I don't like to imagine myself "cheating" the system nor depriving myself of the surprises that can arise when players are the genuine motor for the game.

  68. I think I am getting it.

    Where you see a GM deciding things on what he wants and then imposing some prescribed and gm-centric definition of fun like some arbiter of enjoyment, I see a GM who reads his players and alters things to foster fun based on their desires.

    What differs is motive and reason.

    In my games, if the players come up with something cooler than what I had envisioned, they usually get to have reality mirror their "cooler" idea.

    In like fashion, if I come up with something cooler during game play that trumps what I had previously envisioned, then that reality comes to fruition.

    Cooler is always targeted from what the players want, not what I want. Therein lies the distinction.

    Illusionism cast to the players is fostering fun. (Good GM)
    Illusionism cast to the GM's desires (if that desire is not fostering player fun) is railroady jerkism. (Bad, bad GM)

    By trying to focus on the negative (shifting the sands is the definition of jerkism because only a jerk GM would do this) you're missing out on altering the game to foster the fun your players are telling you they want to experience in play.

  69. @kevin

    No offense, but that doesn't answer my question.

    Please answer the question: what specific problem are you avoiding?


    I could relate a dozen Call of Cthulhu games where I did exactly what you did, for basically the same reasons. But I can tell you exactly why I am doing this and not "sandboxing it":

    -nothing is important in the Cthulhu gameworld except The Menace

    -signing up to play Cthulhu is signing up to fight The Menace

    -players actually being afraid and/or intensely involved in trying to figure out how to stop The Menace is more important than them trying to use their PC to move the whole campaign in a direction they like, because...

    -even if the PCs survive and use their characters again, it's all just a one-shot, really, since the PCs aren;t able to "build" anything.

    -role playing the kind of semi-inevitable breakdown or horrible death the PC has is a focus of the game

    -Nobody i'm playing with has any investment in the 1920's as an interesting environment in itself

    -the whole point of the game is it's a mystery so they have a motive to discover what's already there, rather than to go off and make their own thing happen

    -an important horror theme is that the PCs skills and ideas are often useless and they can't necessarily use what they know or what would make sense to deal with a problem


    D&D, to me, isn't any of those things, so I ask you, AGAIN: what are SPECIFIC examples of negatives consequences for your game that could flow from having to think on your feet or build enough consistency into the world that PCs could figure shit out before it happens.

    i.e. I know you can do all kinds of wonderful things with your prosthetic arm. I still want to know what you -don't- like about a real arm.

  70. This comment has been removed by the author.

  71. @zak: man, I have to stop sitting on ideas for posts. I'm planning to post about CoC - the first game without a sandbox mode - tomorrow.

  72. No offense taken. I'm not even sure I can answer your question directly.

    I have already stated that the goal is to foster fun, there's no specific and atomic definition of fun so the only possible goal is to foster it.

    Fostering it can be by any number of things such as eliminating tedium, offering a new outlet, or perhaps by slowing the pacing of things, etc. The list goes on and on depending on the players, the situation, etc.

    The reasons can't be quantified as they're subjective and situation-dependent.

    If we take your arm example, what I'm advocating is for both the prosthetic and real arm to be used by the GM where the situation merits it. If I do that I'm given the option of deciding what the best means to the end result is without hamstringing myself - or the players.

    But it strikes me that you seem to be under the impression that real is always better to prosthetic and additionally, prosthetic is bad and wrong.

    I say, use each as a tool when the situation befits it. To remove one from your toolbox is to lessen your options at the table.

    To the amateur, every tool is a hammer.
    To the professional, only a hammer is a hammer.
    To the master, every tool can be a hammer.

    My counter question is: Why remove tools from your toolbox?

  73. @Zak:

    Perhaps our inability to get through to one another lies in this statement:

    "D&D, to me, isn't any of those things"

    To me, at times, D&D is and can be all of those things. That doesn't preclude it from being none of those things for me at times too, but for me, D&D lives on the spectrum of open sandbox to full rails and encompasses everything in between.

    I need to be able to address all the colors on that spectrum by fostering player fun in each should they decide that's what they want, not by shoe-boxing the game into what I presume it should be.

    That's why I keep every tool available and don't hamstring myself by ignoring any as bad and wrong.

  74. If we stop calling them tools in a toolbox and instead call them ingredients in a recipe that might be more helpful. Nobody *ever* says "I'd rather you didn't use a hammer when you built that thing." People *do* say "I don't want any chocolate in the dessert." (And people, here, are saying they do say "I don't want a game with that ingredient)

    Chocolate is not bad and wrong. However it's not bad and wrong for someone to say they don't want any. If you give them something they told you they don't want, that *is* bad and wrong though.

  75. Ah that makes sense, I'd obviously been skimming this discussion too fast.

    Done a bit more reading now, and it reminds me a little bit of some old forge threads about "no myth" play vs sandbox play. Here's an example:

    It's based on a totally different principle of agency; instead of responding to the players with consequences where they may or may not be able to achieve their aims, instead the players pursue their plans, and the GM sort of overlays them on top of his plans. You find a way to make your own stuff out of their stuff, and add complications to make things harder.

    So players get to do the stuff they want, and the world keeps on popping up in front of them with new stuff the DM wants them to experience. But in order for this to be justified, it must include their own actions. Maybe their chosen course of action is referenced in a good or bad way, that depends on how complicated you want stuff to be etc etc. But the things they come across are always a mixture of their preoccupations and purposes, and the DM's ideas (this requires you check what players want, but so does –c’s approach).

    You can make a sliding scale out of this, because of what happens when players move from one sandbox area to another:

    They go travelling east off the side of your map to explore, what's there? Well you might take that as an excuse to put in some new dungeon you've thought of. This wasn't designed randomly or on a plan they'd have any way of knowing, you just wanted to stick a dungeon there. Or a port, or whatever. Then you decide that you'd like to put a few links to what they've done before in there, maybe a faction that they've pissed off is also exploring the place.

    The thing is that if they went north, you might do the same thing; you had a dungeon you wanted to put in, and there was a nice opportunity to pop it in. Players in that case probably wouldn't be appalled that you could have put that dungeon in either place, because once they get there, what they do with that dungeon is up to them. It's permanently glued to the side of the map. They can investigate or scarper, they can do all the normal sandbox things in the now expanded sandbox.

    In other words, you put in front of them the sort of things you want them to face, taking advantage of the gaps in their knowledge to stick in something you want, and gauging it's appropriateness based on a general measure of how hard you’re being on them at the moment.

    Or you could define north and south in terms of general dangerousness; a higher level more abstract map, and then give players clues to that effect, and then make it harder or easier on the basis of that, but still stick the same dungeon there with a few tweaks based on the clues they had.

    In the latter example, players have a choice, and you're reskinning/pallet swapping. The choice they make generates a structure that you have to adhere to; if they choose to go east because there are less goblins there, then when they go north, you should put in more goblins. Everything else is up to you to play about with as you like.

    As you get further away from "no myth" play, you can create more and more interlinks and grounds for reasonable prediction which condition the stuff you produce.

    Either way your still having a game with pretty much no player-deception, but you start trading off:

    The ability to plan ahead with inflexibility about what plans can be achieved
    Vs flexibility about what plans can be achieved but with no way to avoid hardship along those plans.

    It's like an isocline of player agency! But it assumes that the more info you give players about what is coming up, the more you fix in place what is coming up, and vice versa. To my mind, deception of players (in character or otherwise) and gotchas is a whole other problem.

  76. Wow, crossposted with OVrything.

  77. Surart:

    But what if the player orders vanilla pudding, and you counter with, "Sorry, we're all out of vanilla. In the past you ordered and enjoyed chocolate. So I took it upon myself to change your order to chocolate. Here's your dessert it's chocolate."

    I contend that, so long as the player enjoyed the dessert, it's irrelevant to the enjoyment discussion that you provided them chocolate pudding even if there was vanilla.

    From the player viewpoint they ordered one dessert and though they got a different one, still enjoyed the dessert.

  78. Sorry for the typo on your name Stuart. Chalk it up to brain moving faster than fingers.

  79. @kevin

    Why try never to palette shift?

    Because NOT palette shifting ALWAYS gives your PCs one more option. If a thing is planted in the world, the seed can grow (or not).

    In order to palette shift, you have to PURPOSEFULLY give so little information that the illusion will never be noticed. That's ALWAYS a limitation on the PCs and it's ALWAYS a limitation on how much stuff can "grow" out of a given plot element.

    In other words, it's like leaving one room of your house completely empty all the time: the number of possibilities it prevents vastly outweighs the number of possibilities it enables.

  80. As long as you tell them what you're doing. Chocolate pudding with a lot of whipcream on top passed off as Vanilla pudding is going to be disappointing. :)

  81. As long as you tell them what you're doing. Chocolate pudding with a lot of whipcream on top passed off as Vanilla pudding is going to be disappointing. :)

  82. Or to put it another way: if the easter egg is in the tree, there are 900 ways to end up noticing it and thus 900 adventures.

    If the egg is always in the last place you look, no matter what, that's one adventure and, what's more, it's not an adventure about problem-solving. It's about you thinking up things you think might solve the problem and the DM pre-deciding that only the last one, no matter how ridiculous, will work. It doesn't exercise your mind.

  83. Zak:

    But you continue to pre-suppose that from a player point of reference you know the egg was placed in the tree and didn't just appear there when you looked.

    That's the fallacy of the quantum ogre.

    Given that the egg may or may not be in the tree, and from the player reference appears in the tree when they look, there's no distinction between either.

    Realistically everything is in the last place you looked. Whether it's there because the GM put it there in advance and had some opportunities prepared to "figure it out" you never took advantage of or if the GM suddenly decided it would be at that moment/you stumbled upon it without gathering evidence that would be it's location are identical from your reference.

  84. Stuart:

    What if the menu indicates dessert is an option, there's a strong indication that the dessert will be vanilla but when ordered it turns out to be chocolate which is enjoyed by the players none-the-less.

    Did I violate choice? Are you sure?
    Do the players know it? Or merely suspect it?

  85. "Whether it's there because the GM put it there in advance and had some opportunities prepared to "figure it out" you never took advantage of or if the GM suddenly decided it would be at that moment/you stumbled upon it without gathering evidence that would be it's location are identical from your reference."

    Maybe the first 2 or 3 times, but pretty soon it becomes obvious from the clues:

    -when you ask questions you don;t get answers that you COuLD have gotten if the mcguffin had a fixed location

    -you never fail to solve a problem if you;re using the standard set of tools and roll well enough,

    -you always seem to solve the problem the GM put in front of you the way s/he expected

    -the game always has an dramatic "arc"


    If EVEN ONCE the PCs notice you palette-shifted, or ask a question about "Wait, if x, then how come why?" and you don't give a satisfactory lie then you are in a position where the PCs know they have a safety net and they will stop thinking as hard.

    And if the challenges you set the PCs are false, then they are literally not thinking as hard to solve them. Their problems are not solved by "a better idea" just "the next idea". You have exercised their creativity but not their problem solving skills.

    And even if they never notice, you yourself have left out chunks of gameworld you could have developed (or they could have discovered by other means) just because you need an empty space in your campaign for plausible deniability.


    Like: I know exactly where the goblin fortress is. A small thing, but now I can work it into dialogue and plot for months to come. Whereas if I just said "it'll be wherever the PCs go next" I have just provisonally pruned the tree of ideas to make room for my lack of trust in the setting to be interesting on its own.

  86. Let's take the dessert example one step further to really get at the heart of the quantum ogre fallacy.

    Player Perspective: The players expressly state they don't want chocolate. They order vanilla dessert and get vanilla dessert.

    GM perspective: The players expressly state they don't want chocolate. They order vanilla dessert and you give them a chocolate dessert they can't distinguish from vanilla.

    Ask the players how they enjoyed the vanilla dessert and they'll state they loved it and were glad it wasn't chocolate.

    Both realities, though seemingly invalid in the light of congruence, are perfectly valid so long as the players never know they've been given a chocolate dessert.

    Only then, when demonstrated that the dessert was chocolate, has player choice been violated, not before.

    To argue that player choice has been violated from the player perspective given that they don't know the dessert is chocolate is akin to killing the ogre before putting it in the box and then crying foul when the ogre turns out to be alive upon opening.

  87. You keep wanting to change the argument into the presumption that the palette shift will be noticeable amidst the noise of random and predetermined.

    My argument isn't that it won't, but that if it isn't then it's not distinguishable from random or predetermined from the player perspective.

    We can discuss the possibilities and probabilities that it will or won't be noticed, but that's not the fallacy of the quantum ogre.

    The fallacy I presented is that, barring the discovery that the ogre is quantum, it isn't a palette shift from that point of view.

  88. I;m not arguing about player choice being there or not I'm arguing about player challenge being there or not.

    and i'm also arguing that the gameworld is less rich than it could be.

    though the 2 are tied together--a consistent world allows for lateral thinking.

  89. Kevin: With respect, you still haven't addressed the other point I've been making, which is that whether or not the players know or care what you're doing, and regardless of the effects on their play which Zak is talking about, there is an effect on YOU as the DM, because YOU know that you are fudging.

    This has the effect of depriving you of fun (because I would say at least two thirds of the fun of DMing is being surprised at the amazing things your players come up with), but also depriving you of creativity (because you rely on the crutch of thinking "it's okay, I'll just make X into Y and nobody will notice, rather than thinking on the fly based on running with what you've got and what the dice randomly throw up).

  90. Also:

    MEANINGFUL choice is based on information--the more information, the more meaningful the choice.

    Keeping room to palette shift requires limiting information.

  91. But you continue to predicate your argument on an invalid means of employing the GM's (perfect) knowledge of the world on the Player's (imperfect) knowledge of the world side of the screen.

    What you need to do is put your argument in the light of the imperfect player view of the world and hide the perfect knowledge from view.

    Then you don't know that your options are limited or the game world any less rich.

    That's the quantum ogre.

  92. noisms:

    You're right, I haven't addressed that concern for a simple reason: You're right.

    As I responded in the comments to WB in my blog post, palette shifting does indeed remove some "surprise" enjoyment from the GM side of the game.

    Hopefully what's gained is a fostering of, and shift to, the fun elements as requested from the players.

  93. To palette shift you need to give PCs
    so little information BEFORE the encounter that they can't see AFTER the encounter how their own choices necessarily lead to that encounter.

    If you have so little info BEFORE that you can't see your own breadcrumb trail AFTER, then the PCs will see they had limited meaningful choice.

    (i.e. "There was no way we could've known")

    If they are the kind of person who look back liek that.

  94. Successful palette shifting leads to the players "knowing" that X led to Y because of Z even when you "know" that X led to Y despite and regardless of Z.

  95. Not "how", though.

    The "Could we have known before" effect.

  96. The beauty of the nature of how the brain works to make meaning of situations is that in most circumstances it will find, ignore, or generate it's own how given that it "knows" Y occurred from Z.

  97. I guess your players are a lot more trusting than me and mine and zzarchov;s and noisms' then.

  98. Zack, it seems like your approach works better when things you add expand from just being encounters to being objects and people that bump into other stuff when the players are not around.

    So when players ignore a part of the world, it just carries on being itself, and when you need inspiration you can look at how those different things are effecting each other, especially given that the players are changing stuff.

    So in my example before, instead of waiting to see where to stick a dungeon, you just plonk it on one edge of the map, then work out what effects it's having, and hint about it with rumours.

    That relates to the "quantum-ness" of the ogre idea as well, because if it starts affecting stuff, if it's not just a random encounter, then what it is and where it is can matter to the players, and be worked out ahead of time. It couples with it's environment and decoheres. (and I'm not talking about ogre sex)

  99. GM perspective: The players expressly state they don't want chocolate. They order vanilla dessert and you give them a chocolate dessert they can't distinguish from vanilla.

Ask the players how they enjoyed the vanilla dessert and they'll state they loved it and were glad it wasn't chocolate.

    This relies on the GM being magical, or at least possessing powers beyond the real of normal people. Or maybe the players are children. Or dullards.

    Just like the opening post - if you are not Al Pacino your deception will not go unnoticed.

    If someone says "No chocolate" you will not be able to give them chocolate pudding and merely assert it is vanilla for very long before they figure out what's going on. Then they will be disappointed it's not vanilla and pissed off that they directly told you not to do something and you did it anyway.

  100. noisms said...

    "Barking Alien: I think it's totally cool to do that, but I wonder why you don't tell the players you do it?"

    I do. They know it. Some of them have GMed and therefore have done the same.

    I tell them straight up, "It's not about the rules and the dice. It's about your ideas and mine."

  101. Stuart:

    But what's offered is typically a lot less distinct than chocolate v. vanilla, hence the subtle and selective nature of the technique.

  102. @kevin

    We have no common experience to draw from here as to whether you manage to fool your players or not or about whether they enjoy it or not.

    We can only speak about what happens at our own tables.

    However, there's still the question: What would you be araid would happen--specifically--if you don't illlusionize?

  103. I'm not afraid of anything that might happen should I not employ an illusion here or there. And to be fair, that's a bit of a loaded question actually.

    Your presumption is that I'm basing my actions off fear. But that's wrong. Maybe I haven't been clear enough on that point.

    If so, allow me to reiterate my goals in casting an illusion once in a while for my players...

    What I strive for is to foster an environment where a greater sense of enjoyment is had by the players.

    If you want to try to get me to say something that might turn that into, "I'm scared the players won't have fun." or "I'm afraid they won't like me if they all die." or "Oh, golly, they'll miss coolness X I really want them to find." then I guess you'll be waiting a while.

    I'm not afraid of players dying.
    I'm not afraid of them being bored.
    I'm not afraid of them spinning their wheels.
    I'm not afraid they'll do something I didn't anticipate.
    I'm not afraid they'll miss the really cool stuff and go off looking for something of their own design.
    I'm not really afraid of anything the players bring to the table.

    In fact, I so not afraid of all that, that instead I want and encourage them to do all that and more.

    My job is to anticipate their actions and bend what I thought I wanted them to experience when I created the world into what they indicate they want to experience instead.

    That's my role.
    It's not about fear.
    It's about reading your players and infusing the results of their decisions with awesome.

    What honestly amazes me is that I seem to be in the minority on this concept.

  104. Just to prevent any layer-ism... Obviously that should have read "player characters dying" not players.

  105. @kevin

    This is, for the hundredth time, vague:

    "What I strive for is to foster an environment where a greater sense of enjoyment is had by the players."

    You're not in a blessed minority: THAT'S WHAT EVERYONE DOES. That's not an answer. Please stop saying that, it doesn't help anyone understand anything.

    The question is why you think this particular technique does that better than one which has all sorts of pretty obvious advantages over it.

    The question is:
    Why not do this using not-illusionism, and therefore create the maximum amount of adventure fuel and player options and player challenge?

    I get it, you drive a Ford Pinto to "Go places" We all drive cars to "go places". The question is, if you're offered a Mustang with all your gas for free, why not drive that instead?

  106. Or, to put it another way:

    if you're playing a story game which is more about players' ideas than challenging the players to use available resources to figure shit out, Why Not Tell Them That?

  107. @Zak:

    Why not do this using not-illusionism, and therefore create the maximum amount of adventure fuel and player options and player challenge?

    Obviously because I feel this method is at least an equally valid means of doing just that.

    What's equally obvious is you don't. The intractably biased presentation of your arguments is demonstrated quite clearly in the very way you put forth your questions:

    A quick review will note that your way is apparently the "real burger", has all sorts of pretty obvious advantages, is the mustang, etc.

    In each example, you don't seem to find anything of value in the use of illusion, of that you've been consistently (albeit subtly) clear.

    Sorry if my answers aren't sufficient for you. I presumed that since:
    1. My stated goal has always been to foster an environment of fun
    2. I've advocated for using the illusion of choice as a a means to same
    You'd be able to surmise that I am stating that this is at least a viable method to do so.

    However, I'm coming to the conclusion that no matter what I say, your initial bias against the method of play is going to override anything I could bring to the table.

    For the record, I never once claimed this is a better way, just an alternate way that shouldn't be ignored or considered bad or wrong.

    However, you seem to have gotten the impression, even after I stated that this is akin to a tool to be used just like any other in the GMs retinue, that somehow I'm advocating for the use of illusionism at the expense of player choice every time.

    I'm not.

    Since I really don't think anything further will provide any useful insights into the role and responsibilities of the GM vis-a-vis methodologies of running games, I'm going to bow out of the discussion and either let it lie or let someone else take up the mantle for a while.

    Good discussions none-the-less. Hopefully readers will find some value both in the concepts and arguments from both points of view.

  108. @kevin

    Of course I'm biased:

    I am obviously going to assume my way is better until I get any evidence otherwise.

    And I keep asking that evidence and you keep not giving it.

    What's the downside of just putting the goddamn ogre on the goddamn map in a goddamn place every single time? I know what you gain by doing that, I have no idea what you lose.

  109. See, I knew I wouldn't be able to stay out of the discussion and shouldn't have said I would...

    The answer is quite simply this:

    I lose the ability to ignore what I thought the world would/should look like at creation time and re-mold it on the fly to look like what the players are demonstrating to me they want it to look like instead.

    That's what I'm losing.

  110. @Zak:

    This is why I wanted to stop responding:

    Because what more, I believe I already gave evidence that the methodology can be used without detriment to the game... from my players recanting an actual session. Which you seem to be ignoring for some reason only to follow up this things like this:

    We have no common experience to draw from here as to whether you manage to fool your players or not or about whether they enjoy it or not.

    So either you're purposefully ignoring my evidence or claiming it's invalid. Which is it?

  111. @kevin

    those are more like real answers.

    To me, the idea that what we're doing is: people put in their ideas to make an interesting story is one thing, and the idea that things are fixed but I don't know how they're fixed but I'm trying to figure it out so that's a challenge is a whole other thing.

    Integrity of a story arc is a priority vs. integrity of a challenge to my wits.

    IF you mix them, the integrity of the second can be compromised (and the integrity of the first, as entertainment, can be compromised).

    It's like: without illusionism this is like a soccer game.

    With it, it's like a movie about some soccer players.

    Either one can be good, but if, in the middle of a soccer game, the goal posts are shifted around in the middle of the game so the shot looks better int he camera, this one tiny insignificant moment of illusionism has just undermined the players' faith in their ability to form strategy and their faith in the existence of fixed rules they can build that strategy on.

    Illusionism is a technique that poisons the reliability of the world AND limits the knowability of it. And both of those things work against challenge-based play.

    Doing it and not telling the players is, to me, like letting a kid win a game but not telling them. The only damage is the kid thinks s/he's being stretched to his or her limits when s/he's not.

  112. Kevin: I lose the ability to ignore what I thought the world would/should look like at creation time and re-mold it on the fly to look like what the players are demonstrating to me they want it to look like instead.

    Believe it or not, there are systems out there which allow the players to not only demonstrate what they want the game world to look like in explicit in-game terms, but to actually control the narrative themselves, and where the rules actually support this.

    Why not play that type of game rather than resorting to all these shenanigans with D&D, whose rules absolutely do not support it?

  113. noisms:

    I realize there are systems that explicitly have rules for player narrative control built-in to the system.

    So why cast illusions while playing D&D?

    Because sometimes my players want to play D&D.

    Moreover, to claim that D&D doesn't support such methodologies (while true in one aspect: that of players as wielders of narrative control directly) is likely to lead us either back to the beginning of this argument (where I employ illusion try to anticipate what the players are telling me they want and granting them proxy narrative control) or into a whole separate one.

    So let's simply agree to disagree on this specific point. OK?

  114. @kevin

    So your players want to play D&D but sometimes they want narrative control by proxy more than they want a problem-solving challenge and the possible frustration that could incur?

    Is that a fair way to put it?

  115. Kevin: I'm happy to agree to disagree, but your argument is akin to saying that sometimes your players want to play soccer even though you anticipate they want to pick the ball up and run with it. In which case, why not just play rugby, rather than bastardising soccer and trying to introduce all kinds of strange rules exceptions?

    If that's what you want to do, knock yourself out, but it seems like a very odd way of going about things.

  116. @noisms: wait, that soccer/rugby metaphor works for the OSR, doesn't it? Gary and Dave picked the (wargaming) ball up and ran with it, inventing (RPGs) bastardized soccer/proto-rugby.

    The game you're suggesting Kevin should play - actual rugby - then is current story-gaming: the properly-evolved, non-bastardized rules developed as the result of serious thought about the implications of this new medium. And the bastardized-soccer players are all us old school dinosaurs.

    Sorry, my inner troll got the better of me. Your analogy was too good to pass up.

  117. Richard: Well yes, I am advocating that Kevin should play story games/rugby! It seems like it's what his players really want, so why not?

    But yeah, I see what you're saying about Gary Gygax bastardising wargames. The thing is, Gary Gygax and his friends invented a new game with new rules - they codified what they were doing. Kevin isn't codifying anything and we're not talking about rules here - we're talking about something more to do with technique, I suppose. So that's where the analogy breaks down.

  118. @ noisms: yeah, I was thinking about one account of the OSR I read a couple of years ago, that it was an attempt to pull all the accumulated cruft off RPGs to get at the kernel of what was new and different about them, or to put it another way, a "what if we hadn't taken that left turn in 198x" alternate universe take on what RPGs might have been and could be.

    Kind of like going back to playing soccer and deliberately picking the ball up again. Seeing what that game is like.

    As to what Kevin's actually doing, I take your point, but he says it's working for him. Good enough for me.

  119. Just discovered this blog. Like it very much, but I feel compelled to Raise Dead this thread.

    I'm a little amazed by the binary thinking happening here.

    Regarding predetermined world building vs. some "Quantum Ogre" shifting, things are either:

    1: Ogre Shifting Never Happens, therefore the game is A) Pure D&D and B) Fun.


    0: Ogre Shifting Happens > 0 Times, therefore the game is A) Not D&D B) Not Fun.

    It seems to me that Kevin made well-reasoned arguments that occasionally using the Ogre Shifting tool in the DM toolbox can increase the fun of all involved, including the DM.

    The answer posited seems to be that D&D is utterly unsuited to this style of play and that people who use it should seek life elsewhere in other games. Binary thinking at its worst.

    For those who seek evidence, I will use an example from my own play.
    The players discovered and were investigating a conspiracy against the crown.
    I had dreamt up the particulars of the conspiracy before-hand.
    During player discussion, one of the players came up with a theoretical conspiracy that also fit with the presented evidence and was far more devious, twisted and ultimately 'fun' than my original plan.
    As nothing was yet set in stone, I flipped a switch in my head and decided that the player's conspiracy would be the game conspiracy.
    The result was quite positive: the player felt great about having "figured it out," and they were strongly put to the test, because the conspiracy he dreamt up was difficult to defeat. I was also congratulated on my evil, twisted plotting. Fun for all.

    Why is this so terrible?


    1. Daniel, you gave players information. They presented a view that, to them, fit the information. You made it so. You did not negate their decision.

      Here is the Quantum Ogre.

      The players see woods or hills, and they feel something is lurking in the woods. They don't want to encounter it, they want to bypass it and head for the hills. The thing turns out to be lurking in the hills.

      Then its a choice of the grotto path or through the swamp and again they picked "the wrong one" and run into the next "awesome monster encounter".

      This happens several times and the players keep making "the wrong choice". They realise that instead of telling the GM which way they are going to go its a zero choice situation, so they just start asking "Ok, what do we encounter next?".

      Its a string of prepared encounters and to make matters worse these encounters are firewalled off from the rest of the world. The creatures leave no clues to their existence beyond the encounter, there is no foreshadowing or information the players can rely on for decision making. Just "you encounter X" even when the players try their hardest not to walk into X. X just has a magical way of being in front of them no matter what they do.

  120. A few years late to the conversation. My rebuttal to the rebuttal:

    How often do players run into important encounters in your game that have had no foreshadowing? Foreshadowing, clues, rumours, lead somewhere and palette shifting breaks those things in pretty obvious ways.

    You want an ogre encounter that is awesome? Players should have heard of the Ogre of Guan Ti and his penchant for using adventurer skin to decorate his keep. The keep is in the grotto of Fangdalish and you will know that you are approaching it by the number of flayed bodies on pikes decorating the approach.

    A simple random encounter can't be awesome, just surprising. But if you had a random encounter, no foreshadowing or clues, with an ogre that seems all decked out to be awesome with backstory and so on the players are going to be jarred by "why haven't we heard of this guy before, why has nobody noticed this awesome thing here?"

    So if I want my ogre to be such an awesome encounter I lay it out as part of a five room dungeon where the entrance can be placed in the players way and where I have had rumours about the ogre and the entrance to its lair. The players encounter it and decide not to go in, well the whole encounter now has a fixed location and lets see if its legend builds.