by Mike Shea on 10 May 2010
"With the Kobold prince slain and his bodyguards broken across the floor, you find yourself with two choices: the left door or the right door."
This has long been the traditional choices offered to players in RPGs since the 70s. Two doors, both ominous and filled with abstract terror threaten to push the PCs to an undetermined fate.
But what sort of choice is that? What options are really available to the players to ponder? Are two doors really any less railroading than a single door?
Today we're going to take a look at the choices we offer to our players and their PCs in our game world. Real choices, with weighable options, true meaning, and outcomes.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't
One of the clearest and most diabolical choices you can offer your players is the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" choice. Perhaps slaying the great arch-devil requires the sacrifice of one true in spirit. Who will that person be? Are there any other ways around it? Does someone we know and care about really have to die? Would we be able to live with ourselves if it was a stranger? It's quite a quandary, isn't it.
These sort of "screwed either way" choices don't need to be huge either. Even in the middle of a battle you might have a choice like this for one of your PCs. Feed the Doomblade your own blood and it grows in power as you battle the titan-king. Do so and lose a healing surge but gain +1d8 damage. Lose two surges and gain +1 to your critical threat range. Now using the blade itself is a choice.
What sort of hero are you?
At the very beginning of your campaign you might offer up a meaningful choice that changes your entire campaign. For example, say you're running an Eberron campaign. Your players might choose whether they are going to be mercenaries for House Deneith, artifact hunters for House Canneth, or investigators for House Tharashk. Any of these choices might radically change their goals and paths as your campaign flows.
Giving your players background choices is a great way to determine the course of their adventures. Think about the introduction to Ultima, the Pivot questionnaire, or the Voight Kampff questions in Blade Runner. What are the choices your player will choose for the character they're about to create?
As a dungeon master, your goal should be choices without presupposed answers. Let the storyline for your game flow with the choices your players make. Will they choose to ally with the prince of Kobolds against his father in the hope of building an army of little angry allies? Maybe they turn nasty when an informant turns out to be a double-agent and the kill him. Now the repercussions of that choice might begin to open up.
We like to have control over our story, but we have to remember that we're just one participant in an evolving shared world. The choices you offer, or the ones your players create on the spot, should flow into this shared world, not fall into the trenches you've already planned out. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have some sort of direction and be able to jump in and move things along when your players are staring at you hoping you'll lead them to the next encounter.
The Dying Villain
I've become more and more of a fan of leaving the villain alive at the end of a climactic battle. A living villain has the potential for a lot of outcomes. Perhaps the PCs kill him anyway. Perhaps he finds a way to escape. Perhaps he becomes an informant or leads them into a complicated web of lies. The options for the downed villain are nearly unlimited.
Dos and Don'ts
As we finish our discussion today, let's look at a few specific dos and don'ts for choices in your own game:
Like these tips? Consider using these links to purchase the Eberron Campaign Sourcebook, the Dungeon Master's Guide 2, the Underdark sourcebook, or use this link to purchase anything from Amazon.com. Need gaming supplies? Visit Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.