The Illusionist’s Lament: Dramaturgy and Illusionism for the Best in RPG Play

This article is a sibling to “Sword-Fighting on a Roller-Coaster.” Although published, neither is exactly finished. What is, really?

Illusionism is a bugbear stalking discussions of roleplaying and story-game play with a spear and hammer. With that spear, the bugbear reaches out to poke and prod and draw blood. With that hammer, it bludgeons.

So it goes that, in many discussions, the notion of illusionism is not a happy ingredient in the mix but rather a weapon used to accuse.

In my experience, the term is too often deployed to scold or warn GMs about bad practices, rather than to discuss techniques of play. But it’s a big term, encompassing a lot of good practices, too — gems and veins of precious metals still wait to be mined amid the ugly rocks. Getting at that stuff is dirty work, but that’s okay.

So let’s talk about the good stuff.

Wizardry and Artistry

What even is illusionism in play? What does this codeword signify in roleplaying and story games?

One descriptions says that illusionism is “in essence, the subtle manipulation of in-game probability and environmental data to point PCs toward predefined conclusions.” (That description comes from Wikipedia’s entry on GNS Theory, so apply your grains of salt as needed.)

The old Forge definition calls illusionism “[a] family of Techniques in which a GM, usually in the interests of story creation, […] exerts Force over player-character decisions, in which he or she has authority over resolution-outcomes, and in which the players do not necessarily recognize these features.”

Illusionism, as a bit of gaming jargon, often doesn’t give the technique its due as a dramaturgical force, as a part of the narrative art that too often gets condemned.

“What if it descended from prestidigitation rather than wizardry?”

The term seems to descend from fantastical illusions, from the kind of magical holography that hides doors behind illusory walls or tricks overeager adventurers into grabbing for illusory treasures. Over time, it’s calcified into something less metaphorical and more strict, sometimes leading to accusations of illusionism that often spiral into definition battles and arguments of intent.

But what if illusionism stayed a porous and fuzzy-edged metaphor that we could talk about in terms of technique, without an insinuation of absolutism? What if illusionism was part of the shared practice of play, including participation by GMs and non-GM players alike? What if we could find a better use for the metaphor?

What if it descended from prestidigitation rather than wizardry?

I find it helpful to distinguish between some of the factors that go into illusionism in play. We need a finer resolution, a higher resolution, to appreciate what all is going on for the players (including the GM) as collaborators and performers.

Fiction with an audience depends on a bit of illusionism, a bit of trickery. It’s not real, it’s realistic. What is fiction, anyway? “A high-res realism,” William Gibson said. “It’s a trick, but I love it.”

Illusion

Ricky Jay — historian, actor, author — is a master of his art and his art is straight-up magic. Legendary in legerdemain, an expert in trickery, keeper of arcane secrets, prestidigitator of the highest order, and an authority on deception and the business of show, Mr. Jay throws cards with deadly accuracy and breaks apart notions of impossibility. His fabulous career astounds simple rubes like me as well as cunning conjurers and magicians. And, as one of the best informed practitioners of his art, he can spin yarns of geeks, freaks, and illusionists of every changing stripe.

So, Ricky Jay knows the value of a good story. He’s living one. Every day that he goes without divulging his methods, he maintains the honest artifice of Ricky Jay’s life-long character. When we see him practice and perform, even when he talks about the toil and design of his work, we know that some part of it is show, part of it an act — his act — and I buy into it happily. I don’t want to see behind the curtain. He’s even made me doubt that the curtain’s real.

In all of that, though, look at how we talk about it: an act, a trick, a show, an illusion. Even though I know he deceiving me, even as I expect to be deceived, I am deceived … and I delight in the deception. That’s magic.


“Ricky Jay — historian, actor, author — is a master of his art.”

Ricky Jay is a practitioner of magic and dramaturgy.

That’s something definitions of illusionism in story play too often ignore: the role of the audience in its own deception. Players can participate in the act just as readers and moviegoers do.

In the captivating documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, Mr. Jay’s cohort, the writer and director David Mamet, put it this way:

“We’ve both been sort of fascinated over the years about the similarities between dramaturgy and magic. It’s the same thing. [Ricky Jay] says magic is using the mind to lead itself to its own defeat. Right? And the same thing is really actually true of drama. What you want to do is you want to set up a proposition so the audience is going ahead of you, trying to figure out what’s going to happen next so the end, just as in a magic trick, it’s surprising and inevitable. It’s inevitable because you say ‘Oh, yes, that’s probably what would have happened’ and it’s surprising because it happens in an unusual way.”

Look, first, at Mamet’s emphasis on surprise and inevitability. In narrative play (in RPGs and story games, for example), surprise remains surprise but inevitability is not quite the right word, even when we pine for something to feel inevitable. Intervening interactions with things like other players’ decisions or the unpredictable input of a randomizer like dice make inevitability, in our medium, something of a misnomer. What we’re after, I think, is something that feels authentic to the characters and the situation, something not (too) contrived — something genuine or seemingly so.

“Chance interferes with dramaturgy. Authors are Fates.”

Chance can interfere with dramaturgy. Authors are kinds of Fates, cultivating authenticity or inevitability and surprise as things go. Randomized or unpredictable interactions are wonderful for sparking twists and causal plots, but they often do not help dramatize the data they give out. One author’s dry plot is another’s surprising and twisting tale, well told. So much is in the telling.

This doesn’t put narrative play outside the realm of art, it puts it outside the realm of any other art. The tension between uncertainty and outcome is one of the defining features of this medium.

“What happens if I do this?” is a common question inside play spaces, from jungle gyms to PvP maps. If the answers include, “The course of the story changes” as well as “The course of the story does not change,” that’s okay. Some decisions are about depiction, characterization, or dramatization rather than, say, plot.

Not knowing what will follow a particular action is a part of the freedom of play. In narrative play, though, believability is an issue, fed by feelings of authenticity or inevitability. Not knowing what will happen is part of the thrill — and it’s what gives illusionism its wiggle room. If a GM’s heavy-handed, ramrod plot won’t accommodate the player’s choices, the feeling of authenticity — or its lack — is their guide to sussing that out. This means inauthentic or spurious choices by the GM can look like illusionism … even when they’re not really.

A lack of information is a common, acceptable part of play. The players don’t know what’s in the haunted castle and the GM doesn’t know what the players will do when they encounter it. But RPGs unfold in asymmetrical, limited-information spaces. Trouble brews when players think they have total agency but they really do not. (For what it’s worth, I don’t know anyone who’s ever had total agency without working alone.)

As Daniel Boorstin put it in The Discoverers, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Getting theGM to change her plans shouldn’t be impossible, even when it is very hard. Not seeing through an illusion is not failure, it is just one possible outcome, even if it’s the only outcome you experienced in your play through the game adventure. The possibility in the possibility space should be genuine.

If a GM is always maintaining player adherence to her plans, I don’t much care right now if that’s “fair” or “unfair,” but it’s boring. It’s the same outcome every time on the level of authorship. It means the answer to the playful question, “What happens if I do this?”, is always “Nothing much.” It’s as unsporting as spamming a broken combo in a video game — it’s exploiting an asymmetrical advantage. In a collaborative game, that’s akin to griefing. Worse, in narrative play it is bad technique. Boredom is one of the cardinal sins of storytelling.

The unfair practice associated with illusionism isn’t deception — that can be a legit part of narrative — it’s dishonesty. (The illusionist who sets up a trick and then performs it, showing you the very same card you supposedly chose and tore in half, is deceiving you to your face and it is wonderful.) Dishonesty is about misrepresenting the choices that matter, and it includes the GM lying to herself about her own willingness to incorporate the players’ inputs into the unfolding fiction. If the PCs’ villainous foe really can’t be swayed by money to spare a life, upholding that choice stays true to the character. The meatier, more compelling things happen when players take actions that interact surprisingly but authentically with the GM and her NPCs. Bad experiences emerge when those actions aren’t respected or reflected in play.

(This is hard stuff, though. Too often, I feel we talk about this stuff in theory, as if objective metrics could avoid trouble spots forevermore, when applications of techniques — shared, learned, practiced, honed — would be more helpful. During actual play, we can seldom poll other GMs for opinions, so problems emerge during live play that could be solved outside the moment. I hope more actual-play reports and podcasts can help overcome this in the long run.)

Playing “right into the GM’s plans” isn’t a bad outcome unless victory conditions are founded on winning a share of scarce authorship — or unless the relationship between players and GM is adversarial and without trust. If we think of a GM’s vision as an enemy force, then its success is our defeat. But that isn’t the only way to see it.

If we trust the GM — and if we ask the GM to be the player who invests time and money in books, maps, and prep— and then vilify the responsibility we give her, we players become complicit adversaries.

Look at it another way. Yielding a degree of authorship or agency to another player (say, the GM) is a viable, legitimate use of one’s own agency as a player. That give-and-take can be fluid, too, moving explicitly or implicitly between players based on individual strengths. It’s not unlike asking the player next to you, “Anne, you know a lot more about how computers work than I do, what could my character say in this situation?”

If we task a player with creating a play space for us, let’s not complain that it is not infinite. Let’s not enjoy the illusion we asked for and then damn the illusionist for fooling us.

Virginia Woolf said, “Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others.”

We want to shed illusions, as authors and audience, not simply to be free of them because of how we feel as we shed them. This is our cycling, narrative arc as participants in art.

If we have no illusions to shed, we might be finished being. As readers, as writers, as actors, as players we adopt illusions so that we can shed them. We buy briefly into the unreal and the impossible, suspending our disbelief, so that we can participate in the shedding of illusions later. We believe in a character so we can care if he weds or dies. We believe in a beginning so we can participate in the ending.

“If we have no illusions to shed, we might be finished being.”
Chance stands at odds with dramaturgy. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

Immersion

We create illusions to immerse an audience. Drama coaxes an audience to lose itself in lovely smoke, to submerge in a mirror and pretend the unreal is realistic. It’s a trick.

The more I collaborate with players, the more I am made skeptical of immersion as a priority for collaborative play. Immersion is magical — but it’s something for the audience, not something authorial.

The suspension of disbelief isn’t something someone else does to you or even for you. We suspend our own disbeliefs. We surrender to the fiction, however long it lasts, and we can snap ourselves out of it when we choose. As audiences, one of our privileges is the ability to blame the writer, the actor, the director when they lose us and we notice the seams in the set or glimpse the orchestra in the pit — when we sense reality in the periphery.

But we frequently bob in and out of disbelief throughout any story, whether we close the book between chapters or think for a moment about the stagehands moving the furniture between scenes.

We hold roleplaying and story games to a different standard, often a higher standard, of immersion — while simultaneously wanting agency and authority over the tale. We want to tread the stage, play in the orchestra, work the lights, and choose the props without breaking character or losing our seat in the audience. When we disbelieve, we want to blame someone else. That’s a holdover from our expectations of luxury as audience members.

As participants in the authorship and performance of play, we must come to our games with different tolerances.

Actors may immerse themselves in characters, just as the writers of those character may, but let us think less about the quantities of immersion and talk more about the qualities of it. Rinse away notions of “total” immersion or “deep” submergence. Let’s not worry about how far up our psyches the water has risen. Instead, think on how we immerse.

Immersion, as we think of it from an audience perspective, is at odds with the act of dramaturgy. Actors can dive deep but they have the solid terrain of the script to give them bearings and a director to feed them oxygen.

In games with shared, distributed authorship — be they “GMless” or “GMful,” if you like — our attention can be disrupted separate from our immersion, though one often drags down the other. Not everyone wants all of that authority all the time, anyway. Sometimes players come to the game wanting to make inputs when they like, not when a prescribed structure demands they must invent a scene to spec. This is fine.

Illusion and immersion are spectrums of experiences, not toggles. Keep the sliders that control those channels within easy reach of those who want them, operate them within comfortable tolerances, and play can be satisfying and rewarding without trapping one character in a cage and stranding another on an ocean of possibilities. Sometimes this is a matter of game rules enacted within the rulebooks and sometimes this is a matter of customs for the individual gaming group.

“Drama coaxes an audience to lose itself in lovely smoke, to submerge in a mirror and pretend the unreal is realistic. It’s a trick.”
Smoke and mirror. (Photo by Peter, from Flickr.)

Flow

As creators — writers, actors, painters, etc. — we sometimes experience something akin to immersion when we’re working, but the artist’s immersion isn’t immersion as we understand it as an audience or as we so often talk about it as players. The artist’s immersion is flow.

Moving from authorial flow to audience immersion — swimming from one lake into another — can feel seamless when everything is working just right, but this is an area where the perfect is the enemy of the good. I think Voltaire said that. Achieving perfect harmony isn’t the point. Gameplay isn’t a recital, it’s a rehearsal. It is play, not a play. Achieving a safe and participatory play environment for everyone included in the instance of play — that’s more important. Strive for a place where all gathered can pursue their own flow in tandem with the group.

We want our play to yield great stories every time, just through the interaction of imaginations and dice, like magic. But they won’t, not every time, without intervention. If magic worked itself, what would we do?

To that end, illusionism isn’t a tool for GMs alone. A player with narrative authority — over his own character, over circumstances or details of the fictional world — can make use of illusionism, too.

For example, when I play Dungeons & Dragons, I sometimes devise (and revise often) a certain dramatic arc for my character. One of the treats of level-based character progression is that you can look ahead at the potential future(s) and options for your character as she levels up. If my characters survive, they progress further along my sketched-out arc for them, level by level. Along the way, even as I react to the campaign and incorporate the DM’s narratives and NPCs in my story, I try to maintain my own narrative within the part of the campaign world that is mine, even if it’s one, lone character.

Why does my character select this spell or that power or that feat? How does her style, her appearance, her bonds, or her loyalty change over time? What gear does she cling to or replace? What crisis or conflict can I dramatize through the changing expressions of the character over time?

If I ignore the inputs of the DM and the other players, or if I cling to my dramatic vision for my character over time, a degree of something akin to illusionism is possible. Shouldn’t I fear the dreaded Death King who menaces our village? If I don’t, because of decisions I’ve already made about my character, am I staying true to my character or am I denying the DM some degree of agency? Both, I’d say.

Sharing authorship means surrendering our choices to each other’s illusions now and again. We must be good authors and good audiences at the same time, like magicians taking turns showing off the tricks we devise for each other. We must be generous and gracious participants. And sometimes we must withhold things — saving this or that revelation about our characters or our stories/histories/backstories or our game worlds — until we decide the time is right. That’s part of characterization and dramatization. And that withholding, that revelation of something that is inevitable — Death King be damned — is somewhat deceptive. It is somewhat illusionary.

Voltaire, after all, also said the secret of being a bore is to tell everything.

Backstage. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

Each Story A Trick

“Do anything long enough, long enough, long enough as an artist, the technique seems to — seems to — disappear and it looks completely natural,” David Mamet said.

Each story is like a different trick to be designed, worked out, practiced, and enacted. In narrative play, so much of this happens on the fly, in the moment. We want it to be natural and free-flowing and reliable, but play is practice for future play and sometimes we will stumble. Remember that we are not playing a finished work, we are building an unfinished thing through play, watching dress rehearsals while the script is being written. A bit of planning should be fair play.

(This is one reason why I love the rules in games like Night’s Black Agents that reward players who prepare a description or monologue that shows character or that character’s expertise.)

Ever heard that bit of writing advice about how each story is a distinct thing to be learned? We don’t learn to write stories, we learn to write this story, then this next one, then the one after that. Each one sharpens techniques and skills we can use in later works but each one also demands a bit of invention, vision, and experimentation, too.

Not knowing, in the moment, if your actions are changing the larger story or not? That can be okay, too. Finding out later what was susceptible to change and what was not can dispel an illusion, of course, but that’s the cost of working backstage and sharing agency. Don’t ask how the trick works unless you unless you want the magic to wear off. Seldom can we have it both ways.

Narrative play sometimes demands shop talk during play. It’s how we smooth the seams and hone our skills while the thing’s in motion. Not everyone talks shop between sessions or on forums. If your game sessions are rollicking without that shop talk, you’ve found the flow. That’s great!

If not, falling back on narrative tricks — including illusionism — to make the most of the moment is preferable sometimes to a joyless exercise in RPG theory.

If none of us has the apt narrative chops going into our next play session, just banging rocks together (or rubbing game rules together, or rolling dice on tables) might not be enough to spark satisfying fiction. Good game design helps rookies and newcomers find their way but some experience with narrative tricks (e.g., characterization, dramaturgy, storytelling, illusionism) can help coax a good play experience out of the smoking tinder.

In actual practice in play, these capabilities often won’t be evenly distributed across the participants even if the game divides authority evenly across the players. With those capabilities comes some implied responsibility — even if it’s a phantom. Thus the player with the narrative chops can feel like she’s the one who helps everyone succeed together … or she’s the one who fails the group.

A failed play experience where nothing really happens and the characters never take shape or a story doesn’t captivate, all that can be a triumph of total player freedom and the theory of collaboration … but if it wasn’t satisfying to them, those players might never play that game (or any story game or RPG) ever again. I want people to keep playing. Stories contribute to cogent experiences and entice people to play more.

Still, like any technique, illusionism is not apt for all occasions. I, personally, play without deceit as often as I play with it, depending on the responsibilities expected of me as a collaborator or as a performative GM. Rejecting illusionism — even temporarily or circumstantially — is a legitimate choice for players (including GMs) who want to emphasize totally transparent collaboration. I keep the tools of illusionism in my kit because I play with a wide variety of players in a wide variety of game styles. It hasn’t been my experience that everyone wants equal authorship all the time or that everyone will come around to a single style of play if only they saw things my way. We have lots of ways to achieve fun, lots of ways to play.

There’s a unique magic in the act of total collaboration and improvisation, but when that magic isn’t feasible, or when it’s in jeopardy, I’ll turn to illusionism to salvage play time.

When everyone has the skills and the practice to make illusionism work as author or audience, the more we can share in that responsibility and authority, and the lighter the load on each of us. Sometimes that means taking turns, in a pinch, fluidly going from good dramatist to good audience and back again.

The Confounding Art

We want to be enchanted and we want to know how we were enchanted. We want to be tricked and we want to be in on it. We want to marvel at the magic and also have the trick spoiled for us and also have the trick stay magical. But not always. And not for every trick.

If we could permanently reconcile the factors of chance, deception, and authorial agency for every situation, we’d solve the mystery of storytelling play as a form, driving the spirits from that place, and maybe sapping it of its magic. We’d be reciting a play, which can be fun, but is not the same fun.

The electric, eclectic experience of creating on the fly, of plans and imaginations colliding in a safe play space where we believe in the beginning and participate in the endings, is the unique thrill of story play. Nothing else is the same … but lots of things are like it.

And that makes me think of anotehr quote, also from Deceptive Practice, this time from Ricky Jay himself:

“[F]or it truly to be magic, a magical moment, it has to be spontaneous. It has to be something that just happens, not in a stage show that’s plotted from beginning to end but rather in a moment.”

We can share in the magic, we can improvise together, if we all have the skills and the practice. But, of course, if we’ve all got the techniques down so well that it all seems natural, how do we know what’s spontaneous … and what’s someone else’s illusion?

Illusionism works, enabling a great trick, when we expect to be surprised and the surprise remains surprising. Drama works when we expect to be surprised and the surprise feels both true and genuine. These are interactive forces.

The magic of narrative play happens when we work, simultaneously and sometimes in tandem, to deliver each other satisfying surprises. The greatest trick may be when our interactive forces align and we get caught in our own spells — and surprise even ourselves.