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Magician’s Choice: Using an Age-Old Conjurer’s Trick at the Table

Sarah (tall, dark brunette hair) from the movie Labyrinth stands in front of two door muppets with shields. They are old and strange creatures, with scaly hands (4 each) and legs.Their faces look like a hairless dog of cat, and they each have shields. One has red adornments, the other is blue.

Today’s guest article, by Noah Lloyd, is about the illusion of choice and makes multiple references to the classic film Labyrinth, which hooked us from the beginning. – John “Hoggle is Bae” Arcadian

When Sarah encounters two doors, “one that always tells the truth, and one that always lies,” in the Labyrinth, why does she still wind up in the oubliette, even though her answer to the riddle seems sound? It’s not that Jareth is cruel, or that The Labyrinth is just a topsy-turvy place, but that the oubliette and the helping hands are more interesting to the story.

I’d like to propose that the riddle Sarah encounters at this point in the film is an example of a “magician’s choice.” Also called equivocation, “magician’s choice” refers to a technique by which a spectator believes that a choice (of a card, an image, etc.) is freely theirs to make. Risking exile from the halls of magicians the world over, allow me to give you some insight into this simple technique, and how we can incorporate it into our own roleplaying games.

How it Works

The long and the short of equivocation is that, no matter how much freedom a spectator believes they have, they wind up choosing the precise card the magician needs for the trick to continue. This can be accomplished in a few ways. In a classic example, the magician has contrived the situation so that a card you selected earlier in the trick is now card A:

For argument’s sake, let’s say you pick B. The magician might then say, “okay, interesting, we’ll remove that card from the table.” You now have three options. A, B, or D? You select C, and same thing, C’s taken off the table. But here comes the interesting part. When you next pick A, the magician tells you to leave your finger on the card. “So that’s your final choice…” they say, taking D off the table. And, magically, there’s your card, freely chosen.

Did you see what happened? When you selected A, instead of removing it from the table like they did with all the other choices, they removed D, changing the logic of the choice on the fly, brazen as anything. (Before you go saying, “Oh that’s so simple, that would never work…” trust me, it works.)

Do I even need to mention that if you select A as your first card, all the magician has to do is smile?

The Magician’s choice works because you don’t know what to expect at each step: when you select a card, the magician hasn’t told you beforehand that the card will be removed or stay, nor do they tell you if the rules will work the same on your next choice. Instead, they change the rules at will, depending on your selections.

What’s important here is that the spectator selects a card that’s necessary for the trick to continue. Because the card is important, the spectator feels empowered, or even magical. Similarly, we should use this technique in games when the result of the choice is going to advance the narrative, or prove important to the characters in some other way.

A few things are important for us to take away from this example. If we can meet these criteria, we’ll have accomplished our goal:

How it Looks to Players

The Magician’s choice works because you don’t know what to expect at each step 
How, and why, should we adapt this to our GMing? The magician’s goal is to make the spectator feel magical (not the magician). The spectator should feel like they’ve selected their card by fair means, not been controlled by the magician. To players, a magician’s choice should look like the choice Sarah faces halfway through The Labyrinth (“She should never have made it as far as the oubliette!”). The choice is never arbitrary (not like our card selection example above), but behind a memorable challenge, like Sarah’s riddle.

As GMs, our jobs are even easier than the magician’s–we don’t have to change the rules anywhere along the way or remove any of the options the players ignored. Whatever road they take, whatever door they open, the helping hands (which we spent all morning prepping for) wait on the other side.

Presenting a Magician’s Choice

Always make the choice important to continuing the story. In The Labyrinth, Sarah’s encounter with the riddle marks a chokepoint in the film, and in the labyrinth itself, funneling the story from aboveground to belowground. It’s an important turning point in the film and in Sarah’s development. The result of the choice we craft for our players should have an impact on the rest of the adventure–there’s no going back.

The question, of course, is why bother? Why put two doors at the end of a hallway when you’ve only prepped one room? It’s all about, as a friend of mine put it, “the illusion of choice.” Significantly, the players (your spectators) should never realize what’s going on. And that’s the thing about illusions, they add depth to the world (“there were more doors you could have opened, more roads you could have taken”) without adding to a GM’s limited prep time.

This is essentially the classic advice that if your players decide not to go into a dungeon, don’t throw away your prep for that dungeon. This is equivocation, but temporally delayed instead of spatially. So long as the players go into a dungeon, someday in the future, they’ll always wind up in the selfsame crypt you prepped all those sessions ago.

For Sarah, and for anyone else watching The Labyrinth: what’s on the other side of the door Sarah didn’t pick? The answer is better than “we don’t know,” or even “certain death,” the answer is worlds of wonder we’ll never see.

The Railroad Accusation, or, Maintaining Consequences

 what’s on the other side of the door Sarah didn’t pick? The answer is… worlds of wonder we’ll never see. 

I can hear some of you shouting at your computer screens that this is simply another kind of railroad. But is it really? Players dislike railroads because they feel like they can’t affect the world. Unlike most railroads, this choice feels like it has consequence: that’s the real value of a magician’s choice. When the door locks behind the heroes, or vanishes altogether, the hallway stretching out before them, dripping with blood, feels ominous and consequential (even though the other door led to the same hall).

Note that I’ve said nothing about leading players to a magician’s choice, or about restricting their agency after making their choice. Their ability to influence the world on either side of the choice is deeply important to maintaining the illusion–another reason why we only use these choices around important moments.

A Recipe for Magical Equivocation

Try this out at your table sometime, like a wily old conjuror. And let me know how it goes…

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Magician’s Choice: Using an Age-Old Conjurer’s Trick at the Table"

#1 Comment By Mike P. On February 26, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

I don’t know about this. It seems really dishonest. Sure, your players “feel good” because they made an “important decision” but you’d better hope they never find out that there wasn’t actually a decision at all. And if you start setting up situations in which “If the other person ever found out how this REALLY worked, they’d be upset”, then it’s usually a good idea to think twice and maybe not set up those situations after all.

#2 Comment By Noah Lloyd On February 26, 2018 @ 4:08 pm

Hi Mike,
I appreciate your response, and it wasn’t an angle I’d entirely considered. Primarily, I think this idea can be used to add a sense that there’s more to the world than the GM has prepped. That said, you’re totally right to point out that a roleplaying game is experienced in a different context than an audience member in a magic trick, who in some sense expects to be “tricked.” While I use magic tricks as an analogy, I don’t really think we’re “tricking” our players by using this technique, it’s more like leaving blank spaces on a map.

I also don’t think that most groups (or maybe just the ones I’ve gamed with) would be upset to discover that I didn’t have something planned for both doors, especially when the climactic scene of the night waits on just the other side. And, like I said, I don’t think this is something folks should be using all the time, but occasionally, to add some more mystery.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

#3 Comment By Grzegorz On February 27, 2018 @ 2:15 am

Let’s make one thing clear: the technique you describe makes exactly a Railroad. When there is exactly one way the situation may end, that’s as close to a definition as it can get 🙂 Whether the players are aware of it and how they react to that is a completely separate matter. Some don’t mind being railroaded at all, some do. For the former and some from the “middle ground” this technique could work fine (I wouldn’t even call it dishonest, then), but when your players are closer to the latter end of the spectrum I wouldn’t risk it. There is always a chance that the “illusion of free will” will break and such moment is almost guaranteed to destroy the session (sometimes even the whole campaign).

You mention several times “the Story” (e.g. “Always make the choice important to continuing the story. “). If you’ve got the story prepared before the game session that’s just a foundation for the railroad tracks. Again, nothing wrong with that, that’s completely fine way to have fun playing RPG, if that’s what you like. But I’m a member of a different sort of players. For me the story is cooperatively created _during_ the session. In whole, not some details. The role of GM is not to “trick” the players into “doing something interesting”, “add some mystery” or “pretend that the world is deeper than it is”. As far as I see it GM is responsible for setting up the initial situation in such way that an interesting story comes up in a natural way. Quoting the Apocalypse World: “Play to find out what happens” 🙂

Summarising: that’s a really useful technique but with limitations and consequences which IMHO the article fails to thoroughly discuss. Also: yes, this is undeniably a railroading technique 😉

#4 Comment By Mike P. On February 27, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

I don’t really think this is equivalent to blank spaces on a map. This feels more like “all roads lead to Rome”. But you’re right – not everyone is bothered by this. And what it’s worth, you can TOTALLY FIX any concerns around this with social contract stuff. If you say, at the start of the game, that not every decision the players make is going to be “really real” and that there are times where it’ll seem like they are making a decision, and but that the results will be the same either way… and you hope they won’t notice, you want them to know that so that they won’t feel like you are tricking them, then anyone who says “Yeah, sure, I’m in!” has essentially given you the “Magic show” sort of implied permission to do this sort of thing. And at the point, go to town! And yes, that’s implicit in some people’s view of RPGs, but rest assured there are also some people to whom it is anathema to their view of RPGs.

This is something that gets talked about a pretty good deal in some communities that I’m on the edge of – to the point where there are terms for it. Specifically, there is “Illusionism” which is basically what is described in this article – the act of setting things up to LOOK like the players have choices, even though what they do doesn’t really influence the way events are going to turn out. This was actually advocated as a GM technique in some of the White Wolf game books back in the 90s. And it’s generally regarded in a lot of places as playing in bad faith – presenting players with decisions that really aren’t. Illusionism’s more benign counterpart is often termed “participationism” – where the players are totally on board with just “participating” in the GM’s story as much as he allows them to. That can be hardcore railroad “You don’t make any decisions about what scenes happen next, because this adventure has a linear flow, and you’re just here to chew the scenery and use tactics to beat the fights” or it can be a game that’s entirely illusion, where it always FEELS like the players are making big decisions even though things continue the same way, or it could be a hybrid-style game like you describe where the players “mostly” have free will but occasionally get illusioned into a cool setpiece or something. As long as the players are on board with this style of play, it’s not a problem.

Because “railroading” isn’t inherently a problem. If I want to get from Paris to Brussels in a hurry, a railroad is great. It’s just that if I am trying to get to my friend’s house, and I get on the train that only goes to the next city that the fact that I can’t turn the train is a problem. If people want to have a good time “following the story”, then the fact that their decisions don’t influence it isn’t a problem. You just need to be aware of this sort of thing and make informed decisions about how you play with a given set of players.

#5 Comment By Solomon Foster On February 27, 2018 @ 8:35 pm

While I agree with Mike and Grzegorz’s comments, I’d like to focus on a different aspect of the first story in the post.

In the movie, Sarah faces two doors. “One leads to the castle, and the other one leads to certain death!” Sarah solves the riddle correctly, that’s why she (eventually) gets to the castle instead of certain death. She ends up in the oubliette because the hands are her next test. The oubliette is definitely NOT certain death.

In a game situation, you’re probably better off NOT offering players a “certain death” choice unless you’re willing to follow through on it if they do choose it…

#6 Comment By Ghosty On August 4, 2022 @ 11:17 am

This “tip” has been known about for years and years. It’s called the Quantum Ogre and it is a form of railroading that relies on the DM being smarter than their players consistently, the illusion is broken when they figure it out and can retroactively ruin campaigns. The players will absolutely figure it out in the end.