Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Discovery, Suspense, and Illusionism

When I play World of Warcraft, my favorite aspect is the continual discovery of new content -- I love exploring new areas and delving into new quests and dungeons and instances. Now, because of the way that WoW is structured with an Alliance and a Horde game running side-by-side, my favorite characters are the two 'in the lead' on both sides: my highest-level Horde character and my highest-level Alliance character. My other characters in the game, which are following after the 'leaders,' are better constructed, with intentional design goals in mind, get more focused RP, are members of guilds, and so forth. In almost every metric, they are 'better' characters. But my original guys, the ones who will discover something new and interesting over the next hill, are the ones that still appeal to me the most.

It occured to me today as I was reading some hate-thread about Illusionism that that sense of discovery that I like so much in WoW is perhaps the thing that so many gamers are constantly trying to replicate. They remember those heady first days of gaming where they didn't know the system back and forth, didn't know how many hit points that dragon had, but they ran in and fought the dragon without knowing what was going to happen and hey, they slew the dragon and took all his gold! They were scared and excited and curious and vindicated. That sort of play experience is difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to acheive again once you understand the inner workings of the system and setting. You can't have that measure of suspense and uncertainty when the game you are playing is a universe of certainties.

I am beginning to think that Illusionism is the best bet (or at least the most common attempt) to recapture that heady heart-in-throat sensation. Part of suspense is not being in control, and a large part of Illusionism is giving up control to the GM. Take a look at WoW, which provides that sense of suspense and discovery using Illusionist techniques. While your hero can ostensibly "go wherever you like", there are two pretty strong forces that prevent you from running willy-nilly across the landscape: the first are mountains that you can't climb over, and the second are large and deadly monsters that will kill you if you venture in "too high" of an area at too low of a level. The game controls discovery (which is accomplished by moving around) by limiting movement, but it does so in Illusionist ways -- the mountains and the monsters are both plausible in-setting elements that nonetheless are there to control player initiative.

Most of the arguments that rail against Illusionism decry the lack of player power, the fact that you are "trapped" in the GM's story, that players do not create, only respond. While all of those are exactly spot-on, those are not necessarily bad things. There are -- as has been proven by many sales and the continuation of the hobby -- a whole hell of a lot of people who really like that kind of play. Not everybody wants to be in charge, or be partly in charge, or be responsible for creating things. It's terribly unamerican to say, but some people (most people) really want someone else to be in charge and want to be given tight guidelines of what they can do. Some people want to experience a story that somebody else is writing. And that is a perfectly acceptable desire. It's not wrong for people to want that -- it's just problematic when that is forced on people that don't want it. And hence the hate that Illusionism seems to attract.

If discovery and suspense are what many gamers are after, and Illusionism is one of the best ways to provide that, then why do we hate Illusionism so? Can't we recognize that there is a very big difference between "creating a world collaboratively so that we can experience it" and "experiencing a world of the GM's creation"? It's almost as wide a gulf as exists between the three recognized Creative Agendas. It's not that Illusionism is "broken" or "square-wheeled" -- it's that it's attempting to provide a different experience than games that encourage more creative participation -- because not everybody wants the onus of that creative participation, even if most us game designers do.


At 4:01 PM, Blogger Lee Short said...

I agree with a lot of this, but let me just say that Illusionism (letting the GM run the plot) is not at all necessary for "experiencing the world the GM has created." Not even close. It's very possible to explore the GM's world with active players with active characters.

Now, I generally prefer jointly creating the world, but I certainly grok what you're saying about that being a different experience than exploring a world the GM has created.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

No, not at all the only way -- as I wrote, though, I think it's currently the best-and-most-common. And as most common, it has the most development and widespread understanding behind it.

Right now, I'm wondering what a game specifically and explicitly designed to foster Illusionist play would look like. No wishy-washy passive-aggressive stuff; flat-out and plainly-spoken "This is the GM's world; you play within it". Perhaps that GM role could be traded around the table (perhaps with parallel but impermeable stories), but at root, the power structure in terms of scope and input would be solidly nailed down as the GM's purview. What would it look like, and would it be fun to play? Would it sell?

At 6:28 AM, Blogger Lee Short said...

But I think there's a difference between "This is the GM's world; you play within it" as you have stated above and "The GM controls the plot" (actual Illusionism). With the former, you can still have characters driving the plot: the GM just needs to communicate enough of his world to the players to let them frame the plot. All they need is proactive characters and buy-in from the GM that he may run the world but not the plot.

I'm sorry I'm not being more directly helpful with your request, but I do think there's another way to get where you're going...and I do actually have some positive thoughts on that. But I don't really have many thoughts on how to go down the road you're on.


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