Sauron's Dog

Like most esoteric pursuits, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) attract weird terms that serve as shorthand for bigger concepts. In the TTRPG space we have our Quantum Ogres and False Hydras, among many others. Permit me, perhaps, to add one more.

Sauron's Dog is what I am terming the illusion of planning. Whereas the Quantum Ogre is an evocative shorthand for illusion of (player) choice, I haven't yet come across a similar term for when the roiling chaos at a dungeon master's (DM's) fingertips begins to look like a real plan. There is long held recognition in DMing circles that amounts to “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, where “the enemy” is another way of referring to the player character party. The reality at the table is that players throw curve balls more or less continuously, and the resulting emergent narrative is one of the several wonders of this hobby.

More specifically, I am thinking of several scenarios. 1. Those times when the players' ideas are better than the DM's ideas for something. More minds are better than fewer minds, etc. 2. Those times when what emerges from incoherent and random events becomes a coherent narrative (sometimes with work). 3. Those times when something inconsequential thrown in via improvisation becomes integral to the emergent narrative.

#3 is the dog, but the concept covers the other two as well. It's the dog the player characters (PCs) encounter on the road between adventure sites, the one that ends up captivating them for no reason than that it's a dog. And because it captivates them, it achieves narrative heft that was completely unintended. It is therefore not just any dog, but Sauron's dog, because by being consequential, it must in some way connect to the larger narrative. The end of that road is the big bad evil guy (BBEG), who in classic fantasy literature is Sauron.

The illusion is preserved as long as the players are willing to believe it, and as long as the DM can sustain it. “Of course this is all planned this way,” the players might say, and who is the DM to disabuse them of the notion? Paradoxically, DMs have less chance of creating and sustaining this if they plan for it from the beginning. Or maybe that's a whole other debate.

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