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Author Topic: 7th Sea: Illusionism in practice  (Read 4520 times)
gentrification
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« on: November 21, 2002, 11:25:13 AM »

One of the topics I follow with great interest here is anything to do with Illusionism, since that's the style I tend to identify most strongly with and, indeed, would like to be very good at. Recently, I ran a game of 7th Sea, using techniques and philosophies I've gleaned from these boards and paying close attention as I did so. The result was on balance a resounding success, and seemed to come as close to the "Impossible Thing Before Breakfast" as I've ever managed. (I do not personally believe in the existence of El Dorado. But I do believe that striving for it can be fun and useful.)

I'm offering for discussion write-ups of my group's Actual Play. They are not so much blow-by-blow accounts of what happened in the game; instead I attempt to explain in detail the motives and reasoning behind the decisions that I made, and, to the extent that they were obvious to me, the decisions my players made. I'd be interested in any insights regarding the use of Illusionism in play, or frankly any remarks at all about my GMing style. This first post will give an overview of the campaign; later posts will examine each of four sessions in turn.

Knowledge of 7th Sea is probably not necessary. Details about the game's mechanics or setting are explained when relevant, and of course I'm happy to expand on some point if asked.

I originally published these articles on http://www.useless-science.com (it's like my old site, but less flagellant). I've edited them slightly for a Forge audience, but for the most part I do not employ any Forge jargon, and in places I take pains to explain concepts that many Forge regulars would consider very obvious. Also, whenever I refer to the player doing something, as opposed to his or her character, it is usually after deliberate consideration.

One last caveat: these write-ups are seriously butt-long. But I figure you guys are used to that sort of thing. :)

=========================

As mentioned above, we were playing 7th Sea, a game of swashbuckling adventure in a fantasy world that bears more than superficial resemblance to Europe during the Restoration Era. Rapier duels, pirate ships, and heroic melodrama are guiding principles here.

THE SYSTEM

For system, we used a stripped-down version of FUDGE. The details aren't important, but one mechanic merits a sidebar: our use of "drama points".

Each player character has one Heroic Virtue and one Heroic Flaw. These are personality traits that determine when your moments of most dire failure and most heroic triumph happen in the game. The players are for the most part in complete control of when these moments take place; virtues and flaws can come up in play constantly or not at all, according to how the player wishes to run his character. It works like this: whenever you voluntarily act in accordance with your Flaw in a way that significantly jeapordizes your goals, you gain a drama point. Later on, you may then spend that drama point to pull off incredible feats while acting in accordance with your Virtue.

The idea is that your Flaw gets you in deeper and deeper trouble (but you get to decide when and where that trouble occurs), until your darkest hour, at which point your Virtue allows you to triumph over impossible odds. So far our group has seen only one interesting application of the rule, so the verdict is still out on how well it works.

THE CHARACTERS

Gabriel (Brian) - A Castillian nobleman who occasionally dons the mask of El Vago (a secret society of vigilantes modelled somewhat after Zorro). He also possesses rudimentary sorcery, which would mark him as a heretic if anyone found out.
Iain (Stuart) - A drunken Avalon swordsman who was ejected from the prestigious Swordsman's Guild after killing another guild member over a woman.
Alessandra (Ramee) - A Vodacce courtesan who works as an undercover agent for the Vaticine Church, and a member of the Daughters of Sophia secret society.

I asked each player to come up with a background that creates some sort of unresolved conflict for his or her character -- these weren't "bangs" in the sense of requiring immediate action, but rather issues that the player would definitely want to address if they came up in the game. I also asked that these background conflicts somehow involve either romantic love or family (or both). I'm exploring Ron's theory, here: that the best way to hook characters into the plot is to hook the players, the actual, live people sitting there at the table with you. I believe that most players, left to their own devices, will tend to create characters that act the way the player wants to act, and that are basically mouthpieces for the player's moral views. Sex and family are two issues that elicit strong, immediate emotional reactions from people; throw those issues at the characters, and the players will be drawn deeply into the game, because they will want to work through those issues using their characters, their own moral mouthpieces.

All of the players created suitably juicy backgrounds, but Brian's is the only one we dealt with during this chapter of the campaign. We decided that two years ago, a Montaigne officer cut down Gabriel's wife while Gabriel watched, helpless. She put up a fight, slicing off the officer's left ear. From that day forward, Gabriel has been looking for the one-eared man in order to exact vengeance.

THE PLOT

I needed a plot that was straightforward, and that provided opportunities for me to showcase the game's setting to the players during play. (7th Sea's setting is not exhaustively detailed, but it is big enough that explaining it fully to the players beforehand would have been cumbersome.) I also wanted to involve at least one character's background in a significant way.

So we began in Castille. The Montaigne have invaded and now occupy roughly half the country. The only thing keeping their armies from sweeping across the rest is the impenetrable fortress of El Moro, situated at the juncture of two rivers. As long as El Moro holds, Castille will hold. As always, however, villainy is afoot. Gabriel has received a letter from the city of Barcino, which is deep in the occupied territory. A Castillian scholar, one Alejandro del Guzman, has discovered plans to topple El Moro using a revolutionary new ship design. If this vital information is not brought to the commander of the fortress in time, El Moro will fall. The heroes must sneak into a Montaigne-occupied city, find Guzman, and smuggle him back out through enemy territory.

As an added complication, which the heroes will not discover until after they are inside the city, the commander of the Montaigne garrison at Barcino is none other than Antoine Leveque, the self-same officer who killed Gabriel's wife two years ago. With this I hoped to establish an agonizing decision for Gabriel's player -- will he stick to the mission and risk letting his wife's murderer slip through his fingers? or will he jeapordize the mission to seek revenge?

I fleshed out a couple of NPCs and locations in Barcino, and wrote out a few cool set-pieces in which to stage sword fights. As much as possible, I tried not to anticipate the players; I wrote nothing pertaining to actually smuggling Guzman out of the city -- the players, hopefully, would make their own plans and I would wing it from there.

At this point, I did not give any thought to what the campaign's "theme" or premise should be; having one was not an explicit goal.

Write-ups for the four sessions can be found here:
Session 1
Session 2
Session 3
Session 4

(edited to add links)
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Michael Gentry
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Seth L. Blumberg
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« Reply #1 on: November 21, 2002, 01:48:10 PM »

Is there some reason why you decided to split this into several threads?

Anyway, I listen to your description, and I think to myself, "Where's the illusion here?" There was not a lot of use of GM Force, except in scene-framing. There were very few cases where the players' decisions had no real effect.
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the gamer formerly known as Metal Fatigue
gentrification
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« Reply #2 on: November 21, 2002, 01:56:31 PM »

Quote
Is there some reason why you decided to split this into several threads?


Some of the session write-ups are pretty long. Sorry if it clutters the boards; it was a judgment call.

Quote
Anyway, I listen to your description, and I think to myself, "Where's the illusion here?" There was not a lot of use of GM Force, except in scene-framing. There were very few cases where the players' decisions had no real effect.


I may be misunderstanding your definition of Illusionism, then. Not so much the illusion of free will where there is none; but rather the illusion of a consistent, persistent world that continues to exist even when the players aren't directly looking, when in fact the GM is moving things around at whim behind the curtains. Changing the situation with the blueprints in Guzman's house, for example (session 2).

sigh. If I did misunderstand, 5 threads with "illusionism" in the titles is going to be pretty embarassing.
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Michael Gentry
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Valamir
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« Reply #3 on: November 21, 2002, 02:06:37 PM »

Actually Mike, as you've probably seen, several of the recent threads on Illusionism have been wrestling with that very issue... whether "illusionism" is represented by the illusion of player control over their own fate or the illusion of a stable real world when in reality its in flux.  In one of them I contended that these two are actually one and the same, because a player cannot have real control if the GM is secretly fluxing the world.

For ease of reference for those who haven't followed them, they are, in order of their appearance (which get quite dense at times):

Illusionism: a new look and a new approach

Illusionism and GNS

Reality in flux: illusionism or not?
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gentrification
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« Reply #4 on: November 21, 2002, 06:28:12 PM »

Quote from: Valamir
Actually Mike, as you've probably seen, several of the recent threads on Illusionism have been wrestling with that very issue... whether "illusionism" is represented by the illusion of player control over their own fate or the illusion of a stable real world when in reality its in flux.  In one of them I contended that these two are actually one and the same, because a player cannot have real control if the GM is secretly fluxing the world.


That's what I thought -- I've been following those threads.

My own thought is that, in both cases, the GM is doing essentially the same thing, but towards different ends. I suspect that "story control" is a different axis than "fluxing reality"; you can employ the latter without necessarily pursuing the former as your goal.  What I've been trying accomplish in my game is artful use of the latter, while letting go of the former.
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Michael Gentry
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: November 21, 2002, 07:13:53 PM »

Hi Mike,

You're probably gonna hate me for this, but ... um, and Mike Holmes is gonna shoot me for it, but ... and, I guess it'd be better if I were to wait a few days and re-read every one of your threads, but ...

... looks kinda Narrativist to me, all 'round. But wait! That's not a decree! It's just my impression at the moment, 'kay? Can everyone just, you know, breathe a while, and maybe I can think over that impression too, without a huge demand for justification? I'm kinda busy with the Infamous Five.

Best,
Ron
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Valamir
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« Reply #6 on: November 21, 2002, 08:15:53 PM »

I was thinking the same thing actually when I read them all.  There definitely seemed to be some premise addressing going on.

What I couldn't immediately tell from the text is if the premise addressing was actually going on in game during play or sort of retrofitted during later debriefing and rembrances.
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gentrification
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« Reply #7 on: November 21, 2002, 09:07:57 PM »

Ron,

Don't worry about me; if the shoe fits, I don't mind wearing it. So you figure that was narrativist play, huh?

I didn't start out with a premise in mind. Halfway through the game (in between sessions 2 and 3), I looked at what we'd done so far, and noticed that "revenge" kept popping up, above and beyond simply plugging Brian's revenge background into the plot. At that point, I started to "address" the premise during play, using a clever method that I like to call "harping on it a lot." There was no explicit or formal agreement with the players to address the premise in any systematic way; I didn't even mention it in those terms until after the campaign was over. When I did, I learned that Brian, on his own initiative, had addressed the premise with his decision to not kill Leveque, with a result that we both found extremely satisfying.

Is that addressing during play, or retrofitting? We haven't rearranged the agreed-upon order or nature of events to suit a premise; and we didn't hammer out a custom-made premise to suit the events. (Except insofar as I did consciously base the premise on what we'd done in the first half of the campaign.)
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Michael Gentry
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Valamir
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« Reply #8 on: November 22, 2002, 06:12:19 AM »

From your description here it sounds like Brian and you were in fact addressing it in play.  Egri, from whom much of the concept of premise is borrowed) explicitly states that premise does not have to come first (speaking of writing a play) but one may suggest itself as a natural confluence of situation and characters which the writer then latches on to and addresses.

So the fact that you were well into the game before a suitable premise arose and was recognized is perfectly fine.

Now that's not to say that what you were doing didn't include some illusionist techniques.  While illusionism is generally discussed as a method of Sim play, I'm not convinced that its exclusive to that mode.  For instance I can easily see Illusionism working in a gamist setting where the number and quality of opponents characters are trying to beat are adjusted (with reinforcements or "failed" morale checks) in order to keep the contest fair.  

In basic narrativist play the GM (and players) are engaged in intentionally creating situations in which premise can be addressed.  One can easily postulate a GM using various slieght of hand illusionist techniques to intentionally create such situations without the players knowing that the situations are being assembled specifically to give them the opportunity to address premise.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: November 22, 2002, 08:36:04 AM »

Hi there,

Paul and I have been talking a lot about the role of the bass (metaphor) as a time-release or "chapter-type" effect. In the first session or few of a really meaty multiple-session game, the GM might "play heavy," which is to say, lay down some overriding riffs. I think the distinction between (a) doing this in such a way that inspires and "activates" the other players and (b) doing it in such a way that constrains and "settles" them is real, although it's very hard to convince people about this unless they've experienced both.

Is this "playing heavy" an Illusionist technique? It certainly shares some key features, especially since any number of back-story things or off-stage NPC responsive things are involved. However, if you check out my Illusionism thread, and see that a key factor in the term is the GM extending meaning, and even control, into the player-characters' actions, then a certain non-Illusionist aspect of "playing heavy" can be identified. These techniques are certainly alike in the "covert" variable, but not so much in the primary, foundational "GM-to-player-character" variable.

Also, let's say 3/4 of the way through the game as a whole, perhaps the players cut back a little and the GM "plays heavy" again. I'm fascinated by the give-and-take, timed element of this as it is a verbal, social thing rather than a musical one. This is where "goals of play" become a sustainable reality. I also think it's why I've never been happy with reducing GNS to the atomic level of single decisions, and why I always associate GNS with the social Premise at hand, rather than the one-player internal Premise.

Best,
Ron
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #10 on: November 22, 2002, 09:10:15 AM »

Also, Mr. Gentry, Narrativist Premise need not be a particular single thing. That idea keeps cropping up, and it needs to be smacked down once again. That is, it's a principle of Narrativist design that says that one ought to have a single premise. And even that's not totally true. We've theorized and worked on games that had as part of their structure the ability to construct Narrativist Premises mechanically before, or even during play.

But as a player using Narrativism in play. one can address any Narrativist Premise one likes. The question is not, "Is the player addressing the Narrativist Premise," but, "Is the player addressing a Narrativist Premise." As long as the player is not making decisions based solely on "what the character would do" or "How can I win" or other such non-Narrativist ideas, chances are the decisions are Narrativist.

Yes, Narrativist play, on the atomic level, is a lot more common than people think.

But here's why Ron fears me! ;-)  

My opinion is that it is not useful to look upon these things in such abstractions as "Instances of play" because only Ron knows what such an instance consists of. Not to parody it, but it often sounds like "Instance of play" is "whatever Ron says it is". Which is hard to work with. At best it falls under the "I can't explain it, but I know what it is when I see it," brand of categorization that seems to me to be more than slightly problematic.

What we can denote are particular decisions, and how they are made. And over time, we can attribute patterns to certain combinations to certain overall styles of play. But until we define those, it's going to be a matter of opinion as to what is what. Apparently right now, if there are a few instances of Narrativist decision making, it's Narrativist. I could accept that if only I knew how Ron came up with that description.

Anyhow, play in which the GM is "predicting the players reactions" as a means to ensure that the plot goes off sure sounds like Illusionism to me.

Since the threads with the session info are going to descend into obscurity well before this does, I'll list them here:
Session 1
Session 2
Session 3
Session 4

Mike
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gentrification
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« Reply #11 on: November 22, 2002, 11:43:01 AM »

Quote from: Valamir
In basic narrativist play the GM (and players) are engaged in intentionally creating situations in which premise can be addressed.  One can easily postulate a GM using various slieght of hand illusionist techniques to intentionally create such situations without the players knowing that the situations are being assembled specifically to give them the opportunity to address premise.


This paragraph more than any so far makes me nod and say, "Yeah, that's what I was shooting for." Also, Ron's analogy of riffing. My goal was to keep the premise at the forefront of the player's mind through "casual" IC and OOC chatter. Assuming that Brian, in writing his character's background, was self-selecting a premise(s) that was already important to him, I hoped that sooner or later he would address the premise in an interesting way. Which he did.

Although I prefer, with my group at any rate, that the illusionism be something of an "open secret". Awareness of GM manipulation is pushed to the background during play, but I make no effort to maintain the charade in out-of-game discussions with the players.

I should point out that this is the first time in 6 years that I've run a scenario I made up myself, as opposed to one in a published supplement. Prior to that I was in fact a very poor GM, with no real concept of how to "focus on story" beyond lots of blatant railroading. So this was very much a first-time-out for me, trying a lot of new techniques in an unrestrained environment. I guess that's why I'm hungry for feedback.
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Michael Gentry
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« Reply #12 on: November 22, 2002, 11:50:38 AM »

Hi Mike,

It strikes me that a lot of people are under the impression that Illusionism is going on when the GM does anything, has anything happen, or has stuff in mind that hasn't happened yet. None of this is Illusionist; it's just play, and the GM is a player too.

The fact that you moved the techniques in question more and more out from behind the curtain (if they were ever really there), and, the more so, that you weren't literally determining what the player-characters do (or did) in story terms ... well, that means you opened up play for Narrativist "power" on the part of the group as a whole, you included. At least, that's what it looks like from this side of the screen.

Best,
Ron
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Valamir
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« Reply #13 on: November 22, 2002, 12:32:25 PM »

Well not to turn this into another Illusionist thread.  But some of those threads got really deep and really dense in what to me is a really basic thing.

For me Illusionism is the following (and I've always recognized this as a distinct style of GMing even before we had a term coined to call it).

1) The player thinks that a particular plot, situation, character, or setting exists at some level of detail in the GMs notes.  It appears to the player that the said plot, situation, character or setting act and react relative to the players character based on what those notes say.

2) The GM doesn't actually have any such level of detail about said plot situation or setting but is using techniques that make it look like he does.

3) The GM is playing this shell game intentionally as part of his GMing style.

For me...thats it.  All of the rest of it (like issues of player control) simply fall out from the above.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #14 on: November 22, 2002, 01:16:36 PM »

Wait, wait, wait, Ralph.

No.

Why would you want that? Why would anyone want the players to think there was a plot, when in fact there was none? What does that get you? Unless by "plot" you mean "objectively existing facts". Otherwise I can't think of another person who would agree to this definition.

I can't believe I'm getting into this here, either, but Illusionism is:

1) having a plot, and manipulating things to look like you do not have one or simply manipulating things into a plot as play goes.

and

2) having it all seem as though it all came about by the interaction of the player's decisions, and an objective world. The idea being that players can make Sim decisions and a story still occurs.

So, if you mean by plot, "objective world" I can sorta buy it. But if you mean by plot a series of occurances that culminate in rising and falling action and climaxes, etc, the usual definition of plot, then I can only most strenuously disagree. And wonder how that came to be your opinion.

In any case, Mr. Gentry, do either of these styles seem to represent your idea of how you organize play?

Mike
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