21 February 2024

Illusions & the gameplay loop (RPG Blog Carnival)

For this months blog carnival we are back to the host Illusory Sensorum for the topic of Illusions & Delusions. You can see the rest of the topics for 2024 on Of Dice And Dragons 2024 Blog Carnival hosting list - there are still a few slots open for those interested.

I found this topic pretty hard because as many of the discussions on this topic rapidly arrive at - illusions mess with the core gameplay loop of TTRPGs - DM narrates what is happening, players declare their actions, DM narrates consequences, return to start. Except with illusions the 'DM narrates' part is twisted because maybe what they perceive is untrue. Here the trick is hitting the balance between the two un-fun ends of "character getting their head lopped off by an illusory scythe trap they couldn't disbelieve" and "players chanting 'I disbelieve' at everything the DM says to slow the game to a crawl."

I'm drawing heavily on Blue Bards articulation of the problem in Death by Illusion... and its follow-up since he does crunch really well - that you get a single save per illusion, fail that and you believe it is real - illusions last until they deal damage then foof - DM checks behind-the-screen if characters twig to the illusion - interaction with the illusion triggers a save.

So with some ground chance to passively avoid illusions for characters (or trigger you the DM handing the players some information on incongruities that ought to trigger suspicion) you can revert to describing things as they appear while still holding that balance between instantly spoiling the illusion or giving the characters no chance at all.

Another useful thought was floated on RPG.net by johnbragg of 'internal' and 'external' illusions - those cast right into someones mind, active illusions, and those that are passively encountered with your ordinary senses. The implication here is with internal illusions everyone can be lost in their own false environment while with external illusions they are commonly perceived and folk can help one another with them.

Another reason to distrust your eyes is the abundance of shapeshifters and doppelgangers, things that are not what they seen but neither are they illusions. A further reason to wonder are things what they seem is the existence of enchantment and memory modification magics - did those events really happen, and if they did, do you know why you did those things you did? And was that thing you remember seeing and that person you recall ever really there?

All these together beg the question of how do the locals act in a world where illusions are possible if not probable and where not believing your eyes is a reasonable stance. A particular wrinkle of this comes up where there are many species with different sensory apparatus - noses, whiskers, infra-red and ultra-violet spanning visual ranges - suggesting there are illusions that span all of those sense - tactile component illusions like minor winds act as minor visual illusions to the poorly sighted whiskered folk.

With that said there are a couple of themes of things an illusionist can do:
* Hide a hazard - the classic illusory floor over a pit trap or illusory chair over a bear-trap - you do not know you are even interacting with a problem until it is too late.
* Create a false hazard - either a monster or trap like a pendulum blade that causes reaction to something not really there - trading the awareness that there is a hazard to be dealt with for the chance it may well hurt or kill intruders.
* Delay characters - whether false wall blocking a corridor, a programmed illusion that cries for help, these cost time - either as an alarm or to allow the opposition to reposition themselves
* Hide a boon - the hostage cell is behind an illusory wall, the magical mcguffin is disguised as a pot plant so the characters seek it in vain - less often used (why disguise things in place of hiding them?) but can have their moment.
* Create a false boon - a chest full of gravel disguised as illusory gold or illusory potions gets the characters to depart thinking they have succeeded - great for lures, drawing intruders to places you want them to be.

For me the useful practical split is Active vs Passive illusions - internal/external is helpful only in how many people perceive it but thinking through what they perceive is the more complex bit.

Passive Active
Hides a hazard Illusory floor over real pit Bear appears as cow
False hazard Fake pit Fake pendulum trap
Delay characters False wall Room appears on fire
Hides a boon Fresh food appears rotten Ally appears monstrous
False boon Rocks appear as gold 'hologram' of ally

In trying to think through all this - I find myself replicating what actual studies of magic must be like in world - arcane cases, means and methods of generating effects, who you wish to perceive what, etc. This is why illusions are so hard, and nice flash-boom evocation is just easier for a DM to run. Also - illusions should be used in moderation, their key advantage is surprise - once folk are alert to them it all comes apart.

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