The illusion of a game

RPGs aren’t real. They’re make-believe tales of fictitious characters. Despite this, we continue to enjoy them, knowing the stories are but virtual constructs of our minds, that the finer details of characters and locales are projected by our own imaginations. We’re content being in the illusion of the game.

I ran a 13th Age game on Sunday. We were playing the Make Your Own Luck introductory module (it’s great btw and everyone had fun). Now 13th Age is not exactly the easiest game for GMs to run, and this difficulty escalates (heh!) when most people at the table are new to the d20 system. It also doesn’t help that the GM doesn’t often run d20-based games.

That’s because the game encourages a heavy, improv-style of GMing – at least that’s what I could gather from previous sessions. A lot of stuff had to be winged on the spot – deciding the outcomes of relationship dice rolls, narrating icon tie-ins to the plot, etc. Also, don’t forget the occasional player deviating from the plot to try and pursue their character’s new motivation.

Is it taxing on the GM? Of course it is! We’re virtually making stuff up on the spot. And yet, although tend to players know it, they still go along with it willingly. This illusion of an RPG – heck, most games, actually – is one of its most interesting aspects, and, understood correctly, can potentially help a GM to further fine-tune his/her craft.

Impressing upon players with small, non-consequential events

bards_tale_splash_560

In almost all of my games, I’ve had players doing something non-consequential, like ripping out the monster’s heart and stomping on it, or flirting with a female NPC. Even after all those sessions, it never fails to surprise me as to how much players enjoy these little moments.

Using Sunday’s 13th Age session as an example again, Charismo the Bard was playing a song to rouse the townspeople into a fighting mood. The kids climbed all over Charismo. Iolus the Wizard, playing to his character, decided to kidnap one of the kids and use him as a blood sacrifice to bless the militia, but all of the players protested and overruled that. It was all done in good fun though. Subsequently Iolus decided to use a passing-by drunken hobo as the blood sacrifice.

Now although these events seemed trivial at the time, I decided to one-up them by having them lead to consequences. The militia became stronger as a result of the blood sacrifice ritual, for instance, and helped to ward off more of the incoming trolls… well, sort of. I told the players that the militia were able to fend off most of the trolls due to the extra blessings they’d received, and everyone just went along with it. They didn’t have to know that I’d made it all up, that I would have given them one siege troll and one troll runt to fight anyway, regardless of whether the ritual was done. It was all part of the illusion.

Recognising the extent of the illusion to gauge “fun”

Knowing when players are immersed in this illusion has, from experience, helped me to roughly gauge how much fun they’re having. In all honesty, I don’t mind a bit of deviation from the main plot, as it tells me that players are actually participating in the game. I will in fact be rather surprised if players simply let me railroad them – that to me could be a sign that the illusion isn’t working, and that they aren’t actually interested in playing to their characters’ motivations.

Illusion as the output of the mind

Going back to the fundamental idea of games as illusions, constructing the latter for players isn’t difficult. Consider, for instance, the fact that all around the world, there are people who love to hear a good ghost story. The mind absorbs what it sees and hears, and out of it projects the illusion. Players go along with what this virtual construct, and when the GM fills in the gaps, putting in the little details, it makes gaming sessions all the more memorable.

descartes_mind_and_bodyAnd the same really applies to board games and video games. SWAT 4 remains an unprecedented multiplayer experience because its realism presents a simulationist illusion. Older cRPGs like Darklands, while not always realistic, have mechanics that can create memorable battles.

At the end of the day though, games are about having fun. The illusion of being in the game supports that. Perhaps it’s the way our minds work – when we game, we simply create this illusion for ourselves. Sustaining the illusion may require some extrinsic support, and that’s why I hope this brief discussion will be of some use to game masters, hosts, organisers and referees out there, utilised fully so as to enhance players’ gaming experiences. As usual, I’m keen to know what you guys think of this topic, whether you’ve taken note of this before in your gaming sessions. Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below! Until next time, happy gaming!

-Jim

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