This is RPG-ology #8: The Illusion of Choice, for July 2018.
Last time we talked a bit about the power of the referee, how it can be abused, and the principles that should prevent that abuse. This time our focus is on how to use that power in a way that will enhance the game by getting outside our usual expectations.
There is a referee “style” identified as “Illusionism,” one of four identified ways of resolving the issue dubbed The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast: if the players have complete control over all their character actions, how is it that the referee actually controls the story of the game? You can read about all four answers at Places to Go: People to Be, in Theory 101: The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, or in the French edition as Théorie 101 – 2e partie : Le Truc Impossible Avant Le Petit Déj’ if French is easier for you. Most people condemn Illusionism as unfair to the players, who have no idea that their choices do not matter. Yet Illusionism is built on the use of some very useful Illusionist techniques, and one of them might be an answer to a problem with certain kinds of play.
Many years ago a referee was bemoaning a disastrous game session. He had designed a high-rise building in which terrorists had hidden a bomb. The expectations of the scenario (a Trailblazing design) were that the party would move through the building and along the way collect the information needed to defuse the bomb. Unfortunately, a few perhaps lucky or unlucky turns put them at the bomb right at the beginning of their adventure, and one of the characters decided that rather than risk letting the time run through its several hours he would attempt to deactivate it now—with a bad roll of the dice detonating it and killing the entire party right at the beginning of the game session.
And I realized that there was a much better way to run a scenario of that sort. I wrote Game Ideas Unlimited: Left or Right? (only the French translation, Gauche ou droite ? remains online) to explain my solution, and used it in creating a scenario in a world for Multiverser: The Third Book of Worlds entitled Why Spy. That book might never be published, although I run the world regularly at gamer conventions, so if you’re ever playing at my table for such a game let me know that you’ve read this.
What I realized is that such a scenario does not work well as a dungeon design. It needs to be run like a movie director.
The scenario is about terrorists occupying a fifty-story downtown commercial office and retail building. There are four maps, each designed so that any one of the four sides can be “north” and all the stairwells, elevators, and utilities ducts will align. The referee is encouraged to make multiple copies of these so he can write and draw on them. The players are free to decide how they want to enter the building—ground level entrances on each side (front door, back door, loading dock, parking entrance), roof door, or break through a window at any level. They know that there is some unknown number of terrorists holding some unknown number of hostages, and that they claim to have a nuclear device which they will detonate if their demands are not met.
Whenever they decide where they are entering, the referee chooses one of the floorplan maps, decides which edge is north, and begins the game. The only fixed encounter locations are the number of terrorists at each of the doors. Once the players are inside the building, it doesn’t work that way. The way it does work is there are nineteen encounters—the first a lone armed terrorist in the hall, the last the bomb itself. As the player characters move through the building, the referee describes the map, inventing irrelevant details (e.g., opthamologist’s office, photography studio, planter outside the door, mirror on the wall) and decides where the first encounter will occur as they move toward it. The tools of the game are used to determine whether the players and/or the terrorists are surprised, and the players take whatever actions they wish to resolve the encounter. Assuming they survive, the game continues. If the players move to a different floor, the referee repeats the process of selecting a floorplan and orienting it, and continues putting the encounters in their path as they progress. Players can avoid encounters if they wish, provided they have seen the encounter before it has noticed them, but they will find each in the order it is listed. Encounters include finding an office worker in hiding, finding a door with a bomb on it, encountering terrorists with and without hostages, coming to an open area visible from above or below where terrorists might be, learning that a strike team has been sent to find them, the team getting split, part of the team rescuing the other part, finding the leader with a remote detonator, and finding the bomb.
What the technique in essence does is deprive the players of control over the order in which encounters occur—that is, they can’t go directly to the terrorist leader without passing through the other events. In doing this, it creates the fun. You could, of course, design a dungeon crawl with only one direction through, forcing the players to face the encounters in the order you’ve decided. This “directorial” technique accomplishes the same result, but with the feeling that they can go any direction they wish. Indeed, they can—it’s just that which direction they go is completely unimportant to what happens next. They can’t derail the scenario, save only by deciding to retreat from the building.
You don’t necessarily need a map to do this, if you can keep track of where everything is in your head. There are ways to do that, too, which we will discuss in the future.