In the world of 2021, between the lure of video games and the rise of solo roleplaying where game engines have been developed to emulate the Games Master's role, the role of the Games Master can sometimes feel precarious. A tabletop game dies if the players desert - but even a single player can enjoy a solo game if they have a solo engine / GM-in-a-box book to automate the GM's role.
Games Masters need to up their game, nowadays, more than ever.
This is where the fine art of storytelling comes in.
In he earliest days of tabletop roleplaying, where all the Games Master (who used to be called the Dungeon Master before DM assumed a different meaning nowadays) had to do was just randomly create a dungeon and moderate technical queries about what a player could or could not do, their job was relatively simple and involved consultation of the Dungeon Master's Guide for what could, and could not, be done. However, you can now consult all sorts of online resources yourself for answers, meaning that the Games Master's role of provider of technical feedback is now redundant. That leaves them with the role of story creator / adventure creator, and the market demands a lot more effort nowadays.
Fortunately, the Games Master has access to storytelling tools, which have existed for a long time, unnoticed and generally unused.
One of those storytelling tools is hypnosis.
You may be feeling a little disconcerted right now. Hypnosis is a scary topic for some of you here. Your characters probably suffered at the hands (or the gaze) of some vampire or sorcerer whose commands were laced with a sorcery spell such as Dominate - or even worse, Enslave - forcing Hard Willpower checks to resist the glare of their dread hypnotic eyes. However, it is not so bad. Every person has the capacity to go into a trance. Everybody can be hypnotised.
In fact, you are likely to have experienced hypnosis personally, every time you picked up a game core rulebook or supplement, and found your mind going through an adventure or just taking in the scenery if it's a compelling sandbox environment you end up in. Have you ever been interrupted while you've been totally immersed in a thing, and had to experience waking up from reading such a book in depth, and blinking, and staring in a state of shock trying to work out what the person who interrupted you is saying? Congrats. What you got woken up from was a trance, and the person who interrupted you was an insensitive clod.
Hypnosis is like that, and it is so easy to learn storytelling tools to keep the players engrossed and immersed in the setting, and make Gamesmasters relevant.
When you are creating a setting for an adventure or a campaign, or establishing a setting for sandbox play, you are setting up something for the players to immerse themselves into. Each player has an unconscious mind working behid the scenes; and it is when the unconscious mind is engaged that the players become immersed in the world, the scene unfolds about them, and they become their characters.
Your job, as Games Master, is to learn to do this consistently. And yes, it is a skill. Fortunately, it's a skill you can learn really quickly. Put your granddad's fob watch away. You won't need it.
It is not the "subconscious mind," no matter what you heard or read from whatever sources. It's the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious is what you're probably using right now to argue with me. The unconscious is the bit you use all the time, but are unaware of - that's why it's called the unconscious. The term subconscious implies that it is somehow beneath the conscious mind, perhaps even subservient to it. It is nothing of the sort. Modern psychology uses the model of the iceberg to describe how the conscious and the unconscious work. You remember the old myth that humans only use 10% of their brains? Any medical surgeon could tell you that humans use 100% of their brains - but any competent psychologist will tell you that they use only 10% of their minds for conscious thought.
The other 90% is the unconscious mind.
The unconscious is where your imagination comes from. Literally. It builds up images and crafts sensations from your memories, and then runs them in your mind, creating from scratch things which only exist because you have remembered something similar in the past. Example: Imagine you're walking up towards your front door. All the familiar sounds, sensations, sights from memory are running in your mind. Describe what you see to yourself.
Now when you open the door and step inside, you're not in your home any more - you're inside a glowing palace of stained glass windows and ceiling, a cathedral with a vast floor, a flat plain dappled with a million colours of light filtered by the glass, a light which comes from the sun far above you. There are scents: incense, burning orange blossoms, wine ...
Now come back here, and remember what you just experienced.
The unconscious constructed that for you. Your job, as Games Master, is to work with the unconscious mind to create such scenes for them.
The players' unconscious mind ... and your own.
The Conscious Censor and The Power of Perversity
Some of you might have just asked "But what if I don't like the smell of orange blossoms?" or "What if I've never smelled orange blossoms?"
Fear not. That's the conscious mind talking. The conscious is, literally, a shield against all the data impacting on the unconscious mind. If the unconscious had to process everything all at once, it would break down. Nothing would get done. The conscious mind, the bit that responds when someone says "you" to them, the bit that thinks it is the main part of the mind: that's just a buffer, capable of holding no more than between 5 and 9 things in short term memory at one time.
When someone mansplains, or when they are being an insufferable smart alec - they're dwelling in their conscious mind. That is not "the highest expression of human or civilised thought" that rationalists think it is. In fact, it is a staggeringly illogical mindset, because it can hold so few facts, like having a supercomputer which you can only access through an interface whose core is a Raspberry Pi.
The conscious' main job is literally to censor and delete the imagination. You cannot live in an imaginary world all the time, and sooner or later you have to disengage from that and focus on the boring day to day minutiae of the here and now, such as washing the dishes and filling out the tax forms. Or arguing over inerpretations about a trivial ruling in the back pages of some core rulebook.
Continued next week
Edited by Alex Greene