Gamesmastering: The Art of the Illusionist

This article represents some of the the techniques I've used in traditional, old-school GMing. It's the way I've been trying to run my games for nearly 30 years (yes, trying - I don't claim to be perfect and able to apply best practice, even my own best practice, all the time). As is typical of many longtime gamers who cut their teeth in the '80s, I'm used to a simulationist gaming style, as defined by Ron Edwards.

However, I'm trying to move away from this this style of GMing, partly for variety, partly because time simply doesn't allow the extended sessions in long-running campaigns with dedicated players that a simulation game really needs. As I move towards one-shots and short campaigns, my style has become more gamist, and in such circumstances it's less important to hide the inner workings of my campaign or my techniques, simply because suspension of disbelief is less important for the players.

Alongside this shift in gaming style, necessitated by lifestyle changes, I've become more aware of some of the radically different GMing styles discussed at The Forge and Chris Chinn's blog Deeper into the Game, including techniques that spread the traditional role among several people (eg, one person is the rules expert, another provides the creative input, etc.). I'm keen to give some of them a try, partly because they share much of the workload of GMing.

At this stage, my style is in transition. But I still believe some of the traditional techniques of the old-school GM have a place in new styles of gaming. I hope others will find them useful as well.

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), epic-level bard
Henry V, Prologue

We all know the story of the swan: serenely elegant above the water and paddling like the clappers below it. It's not a bad analogy for gamesmastering on the fly (and the bulk of good gamesmastering is done on the fly). But I really like to think of gamesmasters as illusionists, in the stage magician sense of the word, not the specialised wizard sense.

I have nothing up my left sleeve, and nothing up my right sleeve.

Illusion is trickery. Using sleight of hand, misdirection, psychology and, sometimes, elaborate props, the magician convinces his audience that they've witnessed something impossible. He invites them to believe, and offers entertainment and enjoyment in return for that belief. That's exactly what a gamesmaster does.

Before we start discussing tricks and how to use them effectively, let's step back for a moment and remember what's fun and not fun about being a player.

Aside from the social interaction and flexibility of tabletop gaming (something no video game can offer), I love discovering what's going. That is, I like campaigns which have a plot and I enjoy figuring it out. The sense of mystery, and the opportunity to explore. I also like feeling that my character is making a difference, and I like to see him (or her) develop and progress. I want to be a protagonist — not the only one, sure, but one of them. I like things to make sense. I also like feeling that I'm in control of my character, and that the GM is prepared to work with my input above and beyond whatever rules we're using — if I don't have that, I may as well be playing a video game. I like a GM who can spur my imagination.

I enjoy games with a balance between action and roleplaying — and prefer games that err on the side of roleplaying. That isn't to say I don't like combat in games — I do — but I don't need it to dominate.

In contrast, I get frustrated if I spend too long without discovering some new bit of plot development. If I try three or four different ways of advancing the plot to no avail, it feels as if I'm banging my head against a brick wall — or, worse, that the GM's blocking me. I become bored with games that have little or no plot or have cliched plots (one-offs can get away with that, but even short campaigns need something). I hate to feel forced into a line of action. I don't like to feel I'm being ruled by dice.

In short, as a player I expect the GM to provide me with an intriguing mystery to solve or interesting world to explore, to let me do it my own way, and to let me develop my character the way I want to. I want the GM to display some creativity and consistency, and I want the GM to acknowledge my character is important to this campaign, not a bit player.

In return, I try to do what I can to further the story, and avoid breaking the game. As a player, I see maintaining the verisimilitude as partly my responsibility, not just the GM's.

Some players like more combat than I do, others more roleplaying. Both camps have people who take it to extremes — they'll only fight, or avoid it at all costs. I regard myself as pretty average in that regard. I'm not especially keen on puzzle-solving in games (I can get that in a book of puzzles, which I can work on without the distraction of friends nattering around me). Some people, however, love it.

But what I love most is being part of the game. Some people watch football, some people play golf. I game, because that's the way I like to spend my hobby time. If I have a bad game, I'm not going to give up the hobby, or even the people I play with, any more than a golfer will quit the sport because he's had a bad round. If I'm having consistently bad games, then, yes, I need to consider finding a different set of rules, a different genre or, heaven forbid, a different group. But that's an extreme I've never reached. I've found something to enjoy in pretty much every game I've played and every group I've played with.

You'll probably find you have a number of players like me. We're pretty much typical gamers.

It's important to remember that as a GM. Your players want to enjoy your game. They're prepared to enjoy your game. To stop them enjoying it, you've got to do something wrong. And it doesn't take much effort to move them from merely enjoying a game to loving it.

But as GMs we're often short of inspiration and we're always short of time. Creating an intricate world of thrills and adventure with depth and detail is impossible for one person with a job and a family to consider.

Fortunately, you don't have to create an intricate world of thrills and adventure with depth and detail and a backstory to rival Tolkien. You only have to create the illusion of one.

This is how I pull the rabbit out of the hat.

Note: The Illusionist and illusionism

If you're familiar with GNS Theory and the Big Model, you'll know that illusionism is a bad thing. In the terminology used at The Forge, illusionism occurs when a GM uses his position to influence player-character decisions without the players being aware of that influence. It's a subtle form of railroading.

This is not the way I'm using the term 'illusionist'. I'm not advocating the Black Curtain so much as a net curtain. As GMs, we aren't here to make the players' decisions for them, or push them into a particular course of action. Nor should we create a situation where player-character decisions are immaterial to the course of the campaign.

The illusion we want to create is that we are prepared for anything the players do, or anywhere they want to go, that we have maps, encounters, NPCs and adventures to hand. That we aren't just making stuff up on the spot.

And in truth, we aren't making stuff up on the spot (not always, anyway). We're maximising the value of our preparation, or at least having enough material to hand to seamlessly and harmlessly delay the players' progress for the rest of the game session so before the next session we can plan a proper response to whatever had us flummoxed.

Inspiration: where to find plots

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and three hours' march to dinner — and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths.

William Hazlitt (1778-1830),
Table Talk, xix. On Going a Journey

I love research. One of my major failings as a GM is a tendency to over-research (check the history section of this site if you don't believe me — gaming led me to surveying medieval villages and learning to read medieval Latin, albeit slowly and with dictionaries to hand). When I keep the tendency reined in, I can put a game together pretty quickly (when I don't it can take ages — I've been working on my 12th-century Anarchy campaign for over a decade).

The key is in rapid plot development and open preparation. Open preparation is stuff you can use anytime, anywhere in your game world. It's drawing a map of an inn you're prepared to use over and over again to represent any inn the PCs visit. It's generating a generic NPC soldier rather than generating Bob Tanner, second-in-command of Alpha Squad. It's planning an encounter at 'a campsite', wherever it is, rather than the campsite in the woods two days south of Ankh-Lesspork.

Putting numbers on a map to show encounter locations, or setting elaborate conditions for an event to take place is closed preparation — an event will only happen in under circumstances which may never arise, meaning any time spent preparing it has been wasted. Open preparation is about choosing events which will happen, leaving the justification for it loose enough that you can work that out in-game.

Of course, you can't let the players know that everything's generic (well, the same inn map is a bit of a giveaway, but don't tell them everything else is generic). You hide it by personalising the important bits — the names list is the best-known trick in the GM's arsenal for a good reason.

You don't need to create all your generic stuff before play. Do it bit by bit, over weeks, months and years. The longer you run games, to more stuff you'll build up. You may get away without needing to create anything — websites will often give you PCs, maps and plots you can use. Character generation software, mapping software and other little gaming utilities will help you generate material.

Don't imagine, however, that I run games built entirely from generic building blocks. I generally use them to bridge the gaps in an overall story arc. They are time-savers and aids, and sometimes a diversion to hide the fact I've got nothing properly prepared, but not a replacement for a good adventure or campaign plot.

Plots are where people often stumble. I've got a few tips for developing plots before a game (and a couple more for generating them in game, but we'll get to that later):

If you have other methods of generating plots when inspiration fails, I'd love to hear them.

Consider three layers of plot: premise, arc and adventure.

Anyway, once you have your premise and your story arc (if any), it's time to start hammering your adventure plot into something you can use at the table.

Scenes: the building blocks of adventures

In truth, he was a strange and wayward wight,
Fond of each gentle and each dreadful scene
In darkness and in storm he found delight

James Beattie (1735-1803)
The Minstrel, Bk 1, xxii

I usually think of adventures in terms of scenes. At an absolute minimum, you're going to need three key scenes: a beginning, a middle and an end. You should put most of your precious time, inspiration and resources into these. For instance, if your endgame is going to involve the party facing down a level-boss and his senior minions, you should have a pretty good idea of their capabilities (you may even want to go as far as full stats for the level-boss at least) and at least a rough sketch of the battlefield. If, at any point, you have any special requirements, you should think of how to apply them (if you want your level-boss to escape, s/he needs a way to do so).

A three-scene game isn't going to stand for much more than pub-play or a tight one-shot, however. I usually try to operate with five or six key scenes (ones important to furthering the plot) and a smattering of optional scenes. Optional scenes come into play if the party does something I've figured out is likely, if they seem really bored with my main plot (just because I think it's cool doesn't mean they will) or if I want to slow down play because they're figuring all the clues of my key scenes out too quickly. I rarely give much thought in advance to speeding up play — it's pretty easy to create a more obvious clue or have a PC experience a moment of intuitive insight, so I do that on the fly. (You should give thought on how to speed up play for convention games, which usually have a pretty tight schedule.)

What's the difference between a key scene and an optional one? Basically, a key scene is crucial: it has to happen, some way or another, to complete the adventure. Optional scenes add colour, flavour, assistance with key scenes, extra rewards or greater understanding of the plot, but are not necessary to complete the adventure. It's important to remember that, although they delay the PCs' progress along the main plot path, optional scenes should be enjoyable diversions. Don't force combat bunnies to talk (at least not all the time), or force roleplayers to fight (at least not all the time).

There's a third kind of scene: a digression. A digression is usually some kind of side-quest or mini-adventure which will take them away from the main plot, so you generally only want to use this in an ongoing, regular-session campaign. However, in an ongoing campaign you may want to keep quite a few of these ready for use when necessary because they add a lot of depth to your campaign. Some digressions are designed for players to choose whether they want to follow them up or let them lie (ie, they require an active effort on behalf of the PCs — they love making decisions, it makes them think they're in control).

I like to have at least a couple of adventure-specific optional scenes to hand. More is better, but I rarely find the time to develop a scenario in that much detail (and if I do, I often invest that extra time into the key scenes). The other optionals are generic.

There is a final kind of scene I use in ongoing campaigns: the colour scene. This is designed to illuminate a particular aspect of the world (background exposition) or generate an emotional response in the players (a motivator). It almost always involves me narrating something, and I try to use such scenes quite sparingly, as I talk enough already, and they usually break the "show, don't tell" rule, making players passive observers. They also have a tendency to be a bit preachy (if intended as motivators) or a lecture (if revealing background) — or maybe that's more to do with me and my style than inherent the scenes themsevles. Either way, I find a little goes a very, very long way.

Purely for aesthetic reasons, if I'm running an ongoing campaign, I like the plot of my opening adventure to tie in closely with the overall story arc. The PCs may encounter their adversary (or hear rumour of him/her), or become involved in whatever it is the adversary's up to.

Challenges: the building blocks of scenes

Without another word he flicked the stone towards her — a bad throw, moving fast and to her left. Her hand flashed out and the pebble bounced against her palm, but she caught it at the second attempt. Relief swept through her and her eyes were triumphant.
'Why so pleased?' he asked.
'I won!'

Danyal catches a pebble in the moonlight
David Gemmell (1948-2006), Waylander

I compass five basic categories of challenge: combat, puzzles, dialogues, skill tests and mood-shots.

Plagiarism: an honest man's guide to nicking ideas ethically

He who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will soon be reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has often before repeated.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)
Discourse to Students of the Royal Academy, 14 Dec. 1770

Any IP lawyer will tell you that there's no copyright in ideas, only in the expression of ideas. Around your own tabletop, in your own games, how much you steal (and how obviously you do it) is purely a matter of personal taste - and the taste of your players.

But that doesn't mean you can get away with introducing a bullwhip-wielding, fedora-wearing adventurous archaeologist into a pulp game, call him something like Bob Pendleton, and not expect the players to identify him as Indiana Jones. You stole Indy's schtick and gave it to someone else. That's not big, and it's not clever.

If you want players to know Indy exists in your pulp game-world, it's much cooler to have the real deal. And perilous to the game, because Indy can likely upstage most PCs. I'd leave him as a background pop-culture reference. If the players find a diary entry along the lines of: Attended Professor Jones' lecture at the Royal Society on Monday evening. Interesting theories on the Ark of the Covenant, but so far behind Pitt-Rivers in excavation and recording techniques. Man's little more than a treasure hunter, I fear. That sort of thing can be passed of as homage, or pop-culture reference, and shouldn't harm your game.

If you intend to publish your game, professionally or amateurly (look, I invented a word!), you need to hide your influences a little better, or acknowledge them openly.

So what can you get away with? Almost anything, so long as you file off the serial numbers and mix up your sources a bit — remember the old saying that stealing from one source is plagiarism, but stealing from several is research.

Recognisable characters are usually out (unless you're playing in their world or playing it for laughs), but their role in the plot or an aspect of their personalities is usually safe enough. One of my more memorable villains was basically Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, not that the players have ever figured that one out. I took a little of his background (special ops war vet) and flavoured it to my Hârn game (he became a member of an elite religious fighting order and veteran of a crusade) and his willingness to cross the line in pursuit of his goals and combined it with the self-belief of the murderous red-leg captain in The Outlaw Josie Wales ("Doin' good ain't got no end.") and turned him into an adversary with power, position, a clear goal and a conviction that the end justifies the means.

Rather more dangerous to your game is stealing plots lock, stock and barrel. If just one of the players recognises the source, it can ruin the game for them. If they act on their knowledge, they might ruin it for the others.

But again, getting inspiration from movie or book plots (or even song lyrics) is fine, if you carry the plot in a different direction.

I've run a very successful one-shot game inspired by Reservoir Dogs — more particularly, by the one-room claustrophobia and the Mexican stand-off at the end of Reservoir Dogs. It was a D20 Modern game, and the PCs were the orc henchmen of a recently deceased drugs lord, stuck in a warehouse and fighting each other for control of the gang. As an added complication a group of 'heroes' were trying to wipe the gang out for good, so the players had to balance their characters' in-fighting with co-operation to defeat their mutual enemies. As a one-off, there was a clear winner: the last orc standing. As it was a very gamist one-off there was no need to suspend disbelief so I flagged my the source inspiration to the players by calling the game 'Reservoir Orcs'. Hilarity ensued.