by Mike Shea on 7 April 2014
Note: this article has been updated from the original written in February 2013
Debates rage between those who prefer sandbox games and those run "on-the-rails". In sandbox gaming, PCs explore regions or entire worlds on their own, with little direct influence on the story from the dungeon master. Erik Scott De Bie and I previously discussed running games in this style. On the flip side, you have games with a single clear path. You're going to Mordor to drop off the ring whether you like it or not. The very trees around you will force you down a single path. Some groups prefer this. They're happy to run through a series of well planned encounters tied together with a single story thread they can sit back and enjoy.
There are other ways to mix the two, providing structure without removing freedoms and choices. Dave Chalker's 5x5 method is a great example. Today we're going to discuss a simpler option: three plus infinite choices.
Whenever you think your players aren't sure where to go or feel forced to go down a particular path, offer them three choices. Each of these three options should be viable directions with clear meaning and motivations. There shouldn't be a clear "right way" to go and it shouldn't simply be a random choice. As a GM, you shouldn't prefer one path over another—players can tell. When you provide these choices, you should be happy to go with whichever one they choose.
With three choices clarified, we now add the "infinite" choice which comes down to "or any other path you think you might like to take".
Here's an example of three options. The PCs just got finished fighting a band of kobolds who worship the dead dragon king known as "the White". The party now has three choices:
This gives the PCs a few clear choices they can follow but doesn't lock them in if they want to take things off the rails. As a GM, you have to be ready to make any of these paths come to life when they head that way. This is the hard part about being a lazy dungeon master. You do a lot less work up front preparing things because you have no idea where they're going to go, but you have to be ready to build a fun adventure right there at the table like the Iron Chef.
It's a common idea for us to let the PCs vote on a particular choice and let the majority rule. This can end up being a problem, though, if one or two of your players really didn't want to go that way. Each player's fun is just as important as another's. Instead of asking for a majority vote, encourage them to discuss it until they can come up with a unanimous decision. They may not all find it ideal, but you want everyone to invest in the direction of the story. It's probably a good idea to break out of character to explain the importance of a unanimous choice and encourage them all to find a choice that they all think is fun. This may often make good use of the "plus infinite" choice. If they all can't agree on one of three choices, maybe together they can develop a fourth you haven't thought of. Then it's up to you to go with it.
You can also tie in and reveal gameplay options with the choices you offer. Choosing to go deeper into the caverns will likely result in more combat. Leaving the caverns and heading out into the cracked tundra will lead to exploration of the ruins of the Moon Elf empire. Returning to the Bronze City will result in more discussions with the council and an opportunity to pick up more jobs or quests.
When you tie in gameplay options, the players are now aware of exactly what gameplay they can expect based on the choices they make. This can be tricky, though, since everyone at the table is unlikely to want the same thing. Again, it's important that everyone has a chance to have fun for the time they spend. Still, this method will give you insight into who wants what so you can tune the results accordingly. Just because they chose the combat option doesn't mean there can't be an interesting NPC to talk to.
If you're running a campaign with an organic story, these choices will constantly shift. This isn't simply based on the PCs actions but also the actions of your villains. Some choices may stay open indefinitely ("you still have that old treasure map you found") while others might close off quickly if the PCs don't act ("the gnolls have killed all the sacrifices by this point and fled back to the mountains").
Good choices aren't always easy to come up with. Here are some guidelines for developing great choices.
If you want to walk the true path of the Lazy Dungeon Master, leave the three choices in the air at the end of a game. Don't let them choose until the beginning of the next game. This forces you to avoid planning a single night's adventure. You simply can't know which way the players will want to take things. If you don't know the path, you can't spend a lot of time preparing it. Instead, they choose at the beginning of the next session and you use your tools of improvisation to take things as they come. It's hard work to be lazy, but can make for some fantastic games where the story grows way beyond your own imagination.