At the D&D birthday party James and I ran earlier this month, while the kids in my group were flying around on their stronghold’s stable of griffons, they rolled a wandering monster check that proved to be another griffon. I decided that this one had been the mount of an adventurer like themselves; bloodstains on its empty saddle indicated that its former rider had met a bad end. In the griffon’s saddlebags, they found a map showing the location of two treasures, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. After some excited discussion, they decided to set off after the horn.
As they flew their griffons up the hill where the map said the horn of the valkries was hidden, the players rolled another wandering monster. (A result of 1 meant it was on the OD&D encounter tables, whereas a 6 would have meant the Pokemon encounter charts my son drew up for the campaign we play together & which we also used for this birthday party). This chart yielded a group of 20 elves, which I described as using ropes to climb up the hill. A reaction roll said that the elves were unfriendly, so when the birthday boy decided to fly closer and see what the elves were up to he was met by a volley of long-range arrow fire. Three of these arrows struck and left him near death, so he flew back to his comrades to be healed. The players decided that the elves were out to get the horn of the valkyries, but that rather than tangling with them directly, the best revenge would be to beat them to the treasure.
Hearing the player’s interpretation of events, I decided to “make it so”. Adopting their take on what a wandering monster meant gave me the chance to add time pressure and a rival for their search (which itself arose from a wandering monster). I think it’s often going to be the case that going with the players’ ideas will yield better results than your own.
Basically, everyone at the table is working to interpret the events that are generated through play and fold them into an integrated narrative. The DM sees this as “how do I take the few bits of information handed to me by these random events and turn them into an interesting & challenging situation?”. The players see it as “how do we unravel the clues handed to us by the DM and figure out what’s really going on?”. Since these are functionally identical, the side with the most brains working on the problem is usually going to reach the best solution.
Despite the advantages of doing so, there’s part of me that feels like it’s cheating to turn what the players think is going on into what is really happening in the game world. In thinking about why that’s so, I reached for the concept of illusionism, which John H. Kim’s RPG Theory Glossary defines as “a term for styles where the GM has tight control over the storyline, by a variety of means, and the players do not recognize this control.”
The first part of this definition implies that the player’s decisions don’t matter; the DM has control over the outcome and will make it so no matter what the players do. I’ll talk about this illusion of choice in a separate post. For now it should suffice to point out that using wandering monsters (and related techniques that can make randomness highly consequential) is a way for DMs to relinquish a substantial amount of control over the outcome of the game.
What we’re talking about here is the opposite, an illusion of not being in control. Adopting the player’s ideas of “what’s really going on” to provide meaning for a random event actually gives them a lot of say in what happens next. But this control is covert, to use Ron Edward’s classification of the factors involved in illusionism. The kids at the birthday party weren’t thinking “we’re shaping the story to make these elves our antagonists;” if anything, they were thinking “we’ve cleverly discerned the DM’s secret plan!”
As a DM, I don’t want to dispel the illusion that I have a secret plan, because that would take away the pleasure that players get when they feel they’ve figured it out. But is this deception wrong? Should I work to make explicit what I see as the implicit advantage of wandering monsters: that I get to be just another participant in figuring out the story, not its all-knowing mastermind?
A discussion among the players in my White Sandbox campaign indicates that for adults at least, this is already apparent. In planning what to do next after a session that was strongly shaped by wandering monsters, MikeLyons wrote:
After the defeat of the balrogs and en route to the volcano, the party flew over a group of primitive humans. It was a random encounter, and everyone understandably filed it in the “Useless Information” folder. Often wandering monsters have no narrative import, but perhaps a few do. Granted, I’ve missed several sessions, so I can’t successfully bring together all the occasions that our swords & sorcery adventure has crossed over into the prehistoric adventure genre (I wasn’t even there for the allosaurus that chomped Chrystos’ robo-liger), but perhaps the group has overlooked a clue. What if there’s a nearby gate to the lost world of pterodactyl riders? I’d visit that world through that gate if I could find it.
You make an interesting point. One of the things I love about the sandbox nature of the game is that we have so much control over what happens. If we decide to track down and encounter the primitive humans, they will be important to some degree. Maybe they aren’t right now, but the more we try to figure them out, the more Tavis will be forced to flesh them out. They might not have cosmic significance, but they will be important to our story if we want them to be. (They might still be important even if we choose not to encounter them, but we won’t know that till later, and that’s part of the fun, too.)
I remember reading about a study that was conducted, IIRC, at Cal State North Beach in the ’70s. The investigators had a stage magician visit two different Introduction to Psychology courses (then as now, a fertile source of test subjects). Each class saw the magician do the same mentalist act. The difference was that in the first class, the professor introduced the magician as “a person who is going to demonstrate some abilities that science is working to understand;” in the second class, he was introduced as “a stage magician who will demonstrate tricks that look like extra-sensory perception.” When surveyed afterwards, a surprisingly high percentage of people in both classes believed that the magician had ESP. One of the comments from the second class said “he might think he’s just doing magic tricks, but really there’s no way someone could do that without using ESP.”
People want to believe that illusions could be real; that’s why we go to magic shows. I think the illusion that’s important to us as RPG players is the sense that events in the imagined world have their own independent and pre-existing reality. Even though at one level we know that some of these events are the result of random rolls on a chart, at another level we treat the dice as oracles that reveal this other world. This illusion that both dice rolls and asking “what do I see when I throw a torch into the pit?” are ways of discovering what’s out there in the game-world seems to me vital to what roleplaying is about.
Because I value this illusion that we’re discovering rather than creating so much, I prefer mechanics that leave player control over the narrative covert. When “what’s in the pit?” is determined by throwing dice and looking at a chart, it still feels like it’s an objective fact. I can speculate about the next step, “what does that mean,” as if I were my character. Knowing at some level that the DM might overhear my ideas and make them so doesn’t force me out of that perspective, especially since I won’t know whether my speculation has been adopted as game-reality until I test it; the element of uncertainty is preserved. When “what’s in the pit” is something that I gain the right to narrate through the game mechanics, I briefly lose both the immersion of looking through my character’s eyes and the thrill of discovering what is and isn’t true.
I think the way that this illusion can become harmful is when the idea of the waiting-to-be-discovered meaning that will make sense of events in the imagined world becomes too closely identified with the idea of the DM’s secret plan. For players, I’ve often seen meta-thinking about “what does the DM expect us to do in this situation?” drive out roleplaying “what does my character want to do next?”; the ability of old-school techniques for randomness and sandbox play to short circuit this meta-approach has been a major draw for me.
For DMs, the idea of the secret plan can be seductive. I know I’m all too susceptible to megalomania; at some point I internalized the feeling that I should indeed be a demiurge capable of creating an infinitely rich world in which every detail is part of the magnificent hidden plan that I alone have created. When I feel guilty about “stealing” the kids’ ideas for what the rand0m-monster elves are doing, it’s because I’m feeling bad about not really being the Wizard of Oz they think they’re outsmarting.
To hell with that! Dressing up in an exotic disguise and calling myself by a grandiose stage name would let me put on a better magic show, just as pretending to be an all-knowing schemer and cultivating a poker face lets me run a better D&D game. But I’d be crazy to think I could really do magic. As a DM my strength comes from recognizing the players’ good ideas when I hear them, and mixing them in with just enough of my own that they can never be sure what’s true until their characters have roleplayed the process of discovery.