by Mike Shea on 24 March 2014
Note: This article has been updated since the original published 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."
Long has D&D relied on the choice of one door or another. 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 for players to ponder? Is the choice of two undetermined fates any choice at all?
How about offering some real choices? What if, instead of meaningless guesswork, we offered informed choices with true meaning and real impact?
Today we're going to discuss providing real choices to our players.
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?
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. Or, if you tap into the holy symbol on the floor, you sacrifice your own attack power to improve your defenses.
Large and small, these sorts of choices bring players outside of their character sheets and makes them really think about the outcome of their decisions.
At the very beginning of your campaign you might offer up a meaningful choice that changes the campaign's entire direction. 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 moves forward.
Letting players choose initial alliances 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.
If you're running a 13th Age game, the icons to whom a PC identifies can have a big impact on the design of the rest of the game. In Fate Core, the choice of aspects can build the world around the character, not just the character itself.
As a GM, you have to be flexible to incorporate these backgrounds into your game. Limit choices to help define the boundaries of the world, but accept the choices the players make within it and steer the direction of the story to fit those choices.
As a GM, you should offer choices without pre-supposed 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 the PCs turn nasty when an informant turns out to be a double-agent. Do they kill him? What would be the repercussions of that decision?
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.
One of the easiest ways to incorporate meaningful choices into your game is to insert the dying villain. Instead of killing a villain outright, always give your players the choice of killing the villain or keeping him alive. If they kill the villain, they may lose out on valuable intelligence. If they leave him alive, they may lose him and be forced to face him again. A villain saved may end up turning into an ally. A villain killed will likely never bother the PCs again.
This idea is often attributed to Rob Heinsoo, co-author of 13th Age. When negotiating with players, instead of saying no, the GM can often find a way to strike a deal with the PC. Want to climb up that wall without difficulty? What if, in doing so, you have to leave your weapons and shield below? Want to take that difficult shot without a penalty? What if doing so puts you in an extremely vulnerable position? Want to decode that ancient language you don't know? What if doing so requires calling upon a dark spirit for aid, a spirit that will no doubt hold you in debt?
Making deals is another great way to offer choices to players and use every decision as a new variable to take the game in an exciting new direction.
Let's look at a few specific dos and don'ts for choices in your own game:
Choices can play a huge part in your roleplaying game. They are the webwork that holds together your large shared story. They are what sets RPGs apart from fixed-path computer and video games. They're also extremely difficult to do well. Take your time and enjoy not knowing where these choices will lead your game.