Facilitating Choices

by Mike Shea on 23 February 2015

At some point in all D&D games, groups of adventurers, and the players who run them, must sit down and make a choice. It might be about a particular direction they're going to take. It might be about an important negotiation. It might be about whether to kill, capture, or let a villain go.

At this point players will spend some time discussing their options, coming up with ideas, and eventually come to a single choice. This may not be as easy as it sounds, though. Debates can get heated. Strong personalities can push down quiet ones. Arguments can become circular and end up burning a lot of time.

adventurers debating a decision

It's during these times that our role as a GM changes. Instead of facilitating storytelling, we're facilitating a group discussion. We have many important jobs in this particular situation and it's worth taking the time to know what each of these jobs are, what pitfalls we might face, and how to ensure everyone still has a good time playing.

Let's take a look at the GM's job when facilitating choices.

Clarify the Goal

First and foremost, it's our role as GMs to ensure our players have a handle on the goal they're trying to achieve. What, exactly, are they aiming for? What is their goal? Is that clear? We can do this best by asking questions rather than telling them anything.

"What is your overall goal?"

You'd be amazed how often people forget what they're aiming for, particular in D&D. If they don't have a good answer, time to lead them a bit more:

"Do you remember what the old wizard in the hat told you?"

or

"What did Erlanthar the Harper monk tell you about the Cult of the Dragon?"

This helps ensure everyone knows what the stakes are. Of course, as lazy dungeon masters we might not have bothered developing a goal. This doesn't mean there isn't one, though. The story may have spontanously developed as the game played out but it is still up to you to clarify it as it arrives.

Lay Out the Options

Next, it becomes our role to ensure the players know what options are available. Again, we can guide the conversation with questions:

"What options do you have?"

As they describe them, you might write them down on a whiteboard or jot them down on some 3x5 notecards.

If you know of some options they're all missing, go back to asking leading questions:

"What about that note you found a couple of sessions ago. Do you remember what it said?"

or

"Do you think there's any risk in killing off the Dragon Cultists in the caravan? How will you know where they're heading?"

This can help solidify the options that are in front of the group. It also gives you a good idea what your players have been paying attention to.

Ensure Everyone Gets a Voice

It's very easy for a strong personality to dominate the conversation and make the choice for the group without the full group's concent. Since we're all just playing a game, the stakes are low and others may be more than willing to let the loud guy make the choice. Instead, make sure you ask the whole table what they think. Ensure everyone has a chance. If Mr. Loud McHappymouth still won't shut up, hold up your hand and tell them directly "give Brad a chance to weigh in." If they're not complete assholes, they'll get the point and shut up for a minute.

Does the Decision Need to Be Unanimous or Majority?

Most of the time a decision can be reached when a majority decide to go a certain way. Sometimes, however, the stakes are high enough or will have a big enough effect on the characters that you want to reach a unanimous decision. If a decision is going to have a big effect on one or more characters, those characters need to agree to the choice. Players shouldn't feel like their character had to go directly against their bonds and ideals when they didn't have a stake in it.

It can be hard to know which choices require a unanimous vote and which can be decided by a majority vote. The best way to tell is to ask them. Once a majority chooses, ask the minority if that's acceptable. If they say "sure, everyone else is ok with it, I'm fine" than that works fine. If you get the feeling that they're really uncomfortable with the choice, return back to the discussion and perhaps find a different option the whole group can agree to. There are almost always more options and some of them are better for the whole group than the first ones that come up.

Best with Five Players Or Fewer

This is one of those times when large groups have a much harder time playing the game. In general, good RPGs seem to work best with about five players. If you have more than six, you're going to have a hard time facilitating a group discussion in a reasonable amount of time. It's a good reason to figure out how to manage your game so you have a reasonable amount of people at the table.

An Important Moment in our Games

Facilitating the discussion of choices is a very important moment for us GMs. It's the time when we're most able to ensure our players build trust with each other. It's a time when we can ensure the environment is friendly and everyone has the opportunity to make a choice. Take the time to recognize the moments and practice the skills to facilitate interesting choices.

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