You pursue your quarry through the twisting passages of the underdark, your steps echoing with those of your prey. The villain will not escape your grasp. Not this time. Not again.
You sprint faster. Is it a trick, or does it sound like the reverberating footfalls you are pursuing are growing louder? In the dark of the cave it is hard to tell. You give it one final burst of energy.
Then, disaster. You skid to a halt as you come to a fork in the road. Both twisting passages wind off, one sloping down, one up.
There is no time. Left or right. Up or Down. You must choose.
This scenario is one that a crafty game master (GM) will put upon a player, and I’m going to use the options the GM has for dealing with what follows as an example of how you can present choice to your players. Because while it might seem like the most important choice belongs to the player, another choice comes before this scenario ever hits the table:
Does this choice matter.
In a video game, choices are mapped out by designers and players alike. Right now a quick google search can reveal to you both the specific and long term outcomes of a given choice in game. A tabletop game is likely going to be a unique series of encounters, so this same mapping is not available to the players, which gives you opportunity when using choice.
In the scenario above, you have a number of options.
The choice is meaningful.
In the above example, this means that one passage allows the player to find their quarry, and one does not. Alternative, this might be a choice between two allies, or two approaches to the same goal.
Pros: In this case, the players may make a “wrong” choice, and failure can be incredibly motivating. If the players know that the choices they face will have consequences, they are encouraged to make the best choices that they can, and to understand that a bad choice might lead to poor results. Coincidently, when they know that their victories are earned, they will savor them all the more.
Cons:There are two main cons to this approach. The first is that a bad choice may strand the players. Say, in the above example, you intended to have the players capture the villain, but it was possible for them to fail. So then the villain is not captured. Can the players physically progress the story now? The other con, which is slightly more selfish, is that making choices matter takes more work. You have to determine multiple distinct outcomes and their effect on the story.
The choice is not meaningful.
In the above this might mean that either path the player take will lead to their quarry, or that either path is going to lead them astray. Basically, this is a “choice” presented to the players that is not going to have an effect on the story.
Pros: This is easier to script, and can lead to good character moments. If, say, all paths lead to the desired outcome, you let the players choose the path that fits them the best. Alternatively, putting the character into no-win scenarios can create tense and dramatic moments as players lament that “their” choice led to their defeat.
Cons: Never, ever let the party know you are doing this. If the party realizes they are being railroaded in this manner, they are going to rebel.
The choice is not really meaningful.
With some fear of starting a war, let’s call this a coke/pepsi decision. Both are carbonated sugar water that I drink way too much of, but each leaves a different taste in your mouth and each has a different label.
This thing has all the advantages of the above, but with a big potential disadvantage: it can make the world seem flat. For example, you let the players choose which royal heir to put in charge, but no matter which one is in charge they take the same actions, which would be out of character for one of the claimants. The players will call you on it.
This is all to say that some choices are non-binary, and you can have a grey area between the extremes.
The players do their own thing
It’s always a little disconcerting when players take the third path. Since I basically talked about it last week (The Pitfalls of Planning) I won’t go into detail, but players are going to try and do their own thing. The additional planning form the first choice will here prove useful as you are forced to adapt.
For instance, in the above, say the players were meant to lose their prey. But the players pull something that makes it inconceivable that he gets away. If you did not have that path scripted, you are in for a fun few minutes.
So what’s my point?
Recognizing how- and when- to use choice is a valuable tool for any GM, and one that it might help you to have in your bag. That there are times when false choices can be useful to help direct character growth or narrative development, but to recognize the dangers of using that tool poorly.
Because when it comes down to it, as a game master, the most important choices can be yours.
See you next week!
Author: Robert Trueblood