I read, devouring anything I can get my hands on. I have books on various subjects that I draw from when I gamemaster. Topics like Game Design, Philosophy, Writing, Acting all contribute to gaming. You can draw inspiration from anywhere and this is no different. In Guy Ritchie’s movie Revolver, two men, a con man and a chess expert, come up with the Formula, a perfect list of rules to win any game or con. You can see some of the Formula described here in a good Youtube video. I began to think that there are a lot of things that a Gamemaster can learn from con artists.
In simplest terms, a con artist is a performer akin to a stage magician. Their goal is to make you believe something is real that isn’t. In Swordfish, Travolta mentions about how Houdini can make an elephant disappear in front of a studio filled with people through misdirection, because ‘What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes’. A Gamemaster is trying to get their players to believe the story they are telling is true, at least true enough to care for the parties involved and want to take part in it. There are some great literary definitions of the stages of the con that I won’t bother to repeat the specifics here, but you can see by reading the following.
The steps mentioned in ‘Confessions of a Conman: A Handbook for Suckers’ look similar to the design and run through of a plot. Foundation Work is just that, the prep of the adventure or campaign. Approach is setting the scene, usually the intro and first bits of the first session. Build-up is the plot hook being dropped in the adventure. Pay-off or convincer is where they achieve the first small successes, whetting their appetite to go further. The Hurrah is that moment where your players are actually going down your path past the point where they can turn back. The In-and-in, not so much an issue in a roleplaying game, but players see the GM as being just as involved in the game and the story line.
Of course, many GM Books will tell you it is never “GM Versus the Players”, so how can those con steps help? Well, the idea is to get the players to buy in and become invested in your world. When you play with a group for long enough, you pick up on the likes and dislikes easy enough to built a plot in the style they enjoy, but there’s still the other things to focus on. For example, psychics use a skill called cold reading to judge a person’s reaction to information as they probe them for details. A similar use of this skill will let you know how your players feel about your game; read their body language for overt signs but you can also judge their reactions will small signs.
As entertainers, Gamemasters need to keep attention of their audience. Xtreme Dungeon Mastery has a few chapters talking about things like using special effects like lasers, fog and even pyrotechnics to your game as well as for doing various magic tricks with cards and dice, which are a great attention grabber to get players interested again if things get stale for some time. Most of the tricks are probably better suited to a LARP, though some of the smaller ones can be good to shake things up or to help set the scene. For example, Contact Juggling at this level may be above what a traditional GM will need, but doing a few tricks with a die could work or maybe some game prop. Same with Cards, the Encyclopedia of Magic has some good ones like Card Production tricks. Now, it can be easy to go overboard when looking at this stuff, but in the end, these are not to replace the game, these are to enhance it. You could look at children’s magic kits for small tricks and add them to the game as well. For this, I mean for anyone who has played the Steam Release ‘Hand of Fate’, which is an RPG done with cards to determine the encounters you have, you could do something similar. Have a deck of random encounters and draw them, or have three different paths and do a three card monte or ball and cups challenge. Use some disappearing ink for a secret message, or even invisible ink for a code. It is all in the imagination you use.
One of the reasons I am talking about this sort of thing is because of something I read recently. On their blog, The Id DM did a survey of DMs asking their greatest strength and biggest flaw and then posted the results. You can see that the major points of flaws were in Preparation, Playstyle Matching and Improv & Acting. With a little social engineering ability, you can learn how to read and handle anyone so you can be prepared for whatever they might throw at you, so you’ll feel more comfortable in judging and matching the playstyles players want and with a few magic tricks under your belt, your players will be more accepting of performances being given.
Go back to the Formula from Revolver, and you see the opening is ‘You do all the hard work. I just help you along’. In the end, it is the GMs job to react to the players, to give the players a story. What the social engineer does is presents the framework, enough of a story to get the mark interested and keep them on the line. The story is fluid enough that they can change things if need to be. To quote the TV show Leverage:
You never count on the perfect plan. You know, the perfect plan, it has too many moving parts, and it’s… you got to expect the perfect plan to fail. … I count on the simplest and ugliest plan, not plan “A,” no, but, like, plan “G,” for example. I start with plan “G.” Now, the quick, simple, ugly plan that I know is gonna work if everything goes bad. I just pretty it up a little bit, add this and that.
Sounds like a great way for a GM to design, start off with the simple things that will get the story where it needs to go, then pretty it up with all the extra flourishes and set dressing that it needs to get the players to become invested.