There’s an interesting discussion going around the RPG blogosphere about the nature of illusion of control and how a GM can rob fun by not roiling dice with the Universe.
I thought perhaps I might examine this concept and see where it leads us.
Edited to add these relevant links to the discussion:
Let’s start with getting everyone on the same page for this discussion…
Quantum Event – Any event (encounter or otherwise) that is presented in the game despite any player agency or choice.
In reality, the Quantum descriptor is a misnomer since in reality what we’re discussing here is the illusion, despite any player interactivity, of a collapse of probability options into a given, known result decided before the event determination should arguably be decided. In essence the Quantum Event (say a Quantum Ogre Encounter) is actually nothing more than a predetermined Railroad Event.
From a Quantum Mechanics viewpoint, the Quantum Event (Ogre Encounter) is in violation of a fundamental law of nature since at least one Observer (the GM) knows the outcome of an interaction (is the Ogre encounter here?) before it is even measured (all roads lead to the Ogre.)
Player Agency – Narrative control granted to players that allows them to shape the game much like the GM. It is the granted ability to make choices and impact the game world with these choices and decisions.
It is player agency that separates interactive entertainment such as games from narrative entertainment such as books movies. In fact, player agency is the key factor that moves narrative entertainment into the realm of interactivity.
Predetermination – Deciding something before the question arises.
Randomization – While not an exact descriptor, for our purposes in this discussion we will define it as: Deciding something at the moment the question arises.
While some predetermination is necessary for a game to have any sort of structure, some randomization is necessary for a game to have drama. Varying levels of each are embraced and enjoyed by different gaming groups.
It should be noted that while predetermination and randomization may appear to be mutually exclusive, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, one can oftentimes be the driver of the other; a random selection of predetermined treasure possibilities for example.
Meaningful Choice – Any choice or decision guided by key indicators as to the probable outcome of said choice.
False Choice – Any decision that is offered in which the decision doesn’t really matter and will have no effect on the situation.
Player agency in the absence of meaningful choices yields false choices. However, it should be noted that both require knowledge that the decision does not impart any effect on the outcome of the situation.
As a result, player agency is only measurable in the light of foreknowledge of possible alternate outcomes and is directly measured by how significant the meaningful choice is factored as a deterministic means to (or away from) a specific outcome.
Palette Shifting – The method by which a GM forces a quantum event to occur regardless of player agency. Palette shifting is the end result of false choice in player agency.
Palette shifting is shaping the storyline by simply moving predetermined features and events to match with the choices of player agency. In this regard, player agency is a farce since no actual decision altering future events occurs as all relevant choices become false.
What is interesting about palette shifting is that, like time, it is relative, requiring player knowledge of it’s application to exist. Remove the knowledge of it’s application and the methodology actually disappears from the game.
The quandary of deterministic balance.
Chaos robs choice of meaning in determination:
When a GM allows chaos to determine the game, player agency is also ignored because no meaning can shape the future outcome of an event.
Arguments that predetermination does not allow the game to generate awesome and unexpected results fail to rationalize that the game cannot play itself without any input from the players.
Railroading robs choice of meaning in scope and application:
When a GM railroads the game (by ignoring player agency) into a quantum event, deterministic foreknowledge of probabilities is also ignored because the outcome was determined before the moment of observation.
Arguments that the story is lost when randomization is given center stage fail to take into account that it is this randomization that separates games from stories.
An example of the relativistic nature of Palette Shifting:
The characters are adventuring in the woods. The track before them branches into three directions.
Options abound. The players can choose to have their characters…
- Go down path A, B or C
- Go back down the path they just traveled
- Stop here and make no choice of direction
- Leave the path entirely
- Split up sending each character back to the decision point for a multitude of choices
- Some other decision no GM would ever consider but the players will decide is perfect and logical
While the GM knows that no matter which direction/decision the players decide to take, they will encounter an ogre, from a player perspective, with no foreknowledge of the possibility that they should be able to avoid the ogre encounter, the players have no measure against which to determine that their decision was a false offering.
Since the players have no knowledge that their decision had no impact on the future event, no palette shifting has occurred from their relative perspective.
So is predetermination as expressed in a palette shift a violation of player agency?
From a QM viewpoint, predetermination isn’t a violation of the laws of nature per se, it is the deterministic foreknowledge that is the violation. Either the cat is alive, or it is dead; determination of the state of the cat is collapsed from the superposition of both possible outcomes at the moment of observation. What’s notable is that the possible outcomes are selected from a predetermined subset of possible outcomes.
In an odd way, it is predetermination that is a requirement for meaningful choice because randomization robs choice of meaning. In a randomized setting, no foreknowledge can be used to measure the deterministic outcome of choice and all choices become false in the chaos. Since structure is required for meaning, it is predetermination that empowers player agency. However, if the outcome of the event is also predetermined from a choice of one, then choice also has no meaning.
The answer to this question is yes and no… it’s relative since the palette shift only really occurs if it is a known factor.
The real question is if ignoring player agency robs the game of fun.
Does it truly rob the game of fun?
I say not necessarily. No more than ignoring the dice (or even yourself as the GM) of agency robs the game of fun.
Consider another example:
A character is hard pressed in battle against the ogre. The battle has gone on long into the night, she is nearly out of health, her resources are low, and her companions are all either unconscious or immobilized and unable to assist in the struggle. Things are looking quite bleak.
The players all believe a TPK is on the horizon. Everyone knows this won’t turn out well… everyone but you.
As the GM, you’ve already predetermined that the ogre will be defeated. Player and dice agency are not in play for this decision point.
It is the ogre’s opportunity to dispatch with this final obstacle and feast upon the fallen party. One last hit will spell certain defeat and disaster…
You roll the dice for the ogre’s attack and (pretending to interpret the result but actually ignoring it*) describe how the creature strikes at the character but thanks to cat-like reflexes borne of desperation, misses her by mere inches. The ogre strikes a large hardwood tree splintering the trunk into a thousand small pieces of wood.
Time stands still as the ogre and the character both glance skyward to view the massive tree sway against the starry sky before toppling right onto the hapless ogre.
Pinned beneath the weight of the tree, the ogre is no longer a threat and will be easily dispatched. The day is won, the party will survive.
Were they robbed of fun? Doubtful.
And only if the players are aware of the palette shifting. So long as nobody ever knows that the ogre so easily could have overcome the party could your predetermination in ignoring the agency of the dice be called into question.
Remove the foreknowledge of the possible outcomes and you’ve removed all knowledge of the palette shift… and with removal of that knowledge, the palette shift itself is actually removed because the knowledge is a requirement of the shift by definition.
What robs the game of fun is when the palette shift is known and is in direct opposition to the meaningful choice expectation of the player. Failing that, there is no measure against which to determine how the choice strayed from meaningful to false.
And that is the true fallacy of the Quantum Ogre argument, that it is relativistic and requires player foreknowledge to categorize it as a false choice offering.
Eliminate that foreknowledge and there is no Quantum Ogre.