Thursday, 10 May 2012

Freedom of Choice and Other RPG Disasters

If I were asked to list the most important quality of a role playing game I might not think of the freedom to make your own choices right away, but I sure as heck would get to it somewhere in the top 10. Choice is an integral part of role playing and is implicit in nearly every interaction a player has with the game master. The GM tells you much of what you see, hear, smell, and so forth and follows up with the single most common (and most important) question: "What do you do?"

Often there isn't much real choice available. Do you hit the orc with your sword or do you shoot an arrow at him with your longbow? Do you hurl mystic fire or mystic ice at the troll? "Fire, duh. Trolls regenerate ice damage." But either way, it's a tactical decision more than an actual choice. In this context, any choice is constrained and generally 'safe.' Which is to say, it is unlikely to derail the game master's plans for the evening. Nor is it going to seriously endanger your character's existence or the party's overall success... At least not any more than any other roll of the polyhedral.

But there are other kinds of choices. Do we kick in the front door of the dungeon or sneak around and try to find a back way? Sometimes these choices don't have a huge effect, if the dungeon already features a back way in on the map, the GM is pretty well-prepared. Likewise, everything is peachy if it absolutely doesn't have a back door. But there are occasions where it can cause problems. What if there is a back way in, but the GM had counted on the players learning something key in the first few rooms? Some bit of plot that either relates to the larger story or a key secret that will allow them to defeat the hideous undead lord they are destined to meet at the very bottom of the dungeon? Now the GM has to scramble. Is there a way to duplicate that important bit elsewhere? Should the GM utter that infamous phrase, "No. You can't do that?" Should the GM let the dice fall where they may and allow the possibility for players to make mistakes, or even fail entirely because of what seemed like a reasonable choice at the time?

There's no single right or wrong answer to these questions. Every group can find its own way through these thorny issues. But if the players and the GM never discuss these things, no decision will be made consciously. Communication is hugely important. As a GM, I don't want my players to be frustrated because they failed due to a circumstance beyond their control. At the same time, I'm proud of my adventures, my stories, and my schmaltzy jokes. I want the players to see as much of my grand tapestry as possible. I want as much of the hard work I put into the game to show as possible. Selfish? Heck, yeah, I am.

In my experience, players tend to be very risk-averse in a game. They always want the maximum return for the minimum risk. And they plain hate to lose, let alone suffer the ignominy of character death. Losing happens and so does character death, but players will almost always move heaven, earth, and various elemental planes to avoid it. This leads to a lot of careful planning whenever the players think their characters are heading into a dangerous situation. Which is pretty much all of the time in an adventure game, right? So that means a lot of time is going to be spent on things that would never be explored in a novel, movie, or comic book.

There's a reason why editors cut that stuff out or boil it down to a quick-cut montage set to 80's music: it's boring. It isn't any less boring when it's hashed out at the table. Even worse, it can lead to players arguing with each other - there's nothing wrong with characters arguing with each other - but I hate it when my friends fight for real. I think these arguments are based on the fear that there is a Right Decision and a Wrong Decision. And if the players make the Wrong Decision, the GM will Punish Them with loss or even death. Did I mention that most players hate losing and/or dying?

The other night I ran a game of D&D 4th Edition and I wanted the players to have a real say in where the campaign went. We were at a turning point and the plan would play a large part in determining the stories we tell together for the rest of the campaign.  So it was an important choice and it was a wide-open free choice. I literally didn't care which way the game went, because I hadn't written it yet. In this case, there was no wrong choice. I had nothing prepared that would be wasted if the players never saw it. I had no serious preconception of how the campaign would play out. Whatever decision the group came to was pretty much by definition the Right Decision.

But neither the players nor their characters knew any of that. And I think that's a good thing, but it has consequences. In this case, the consequence was the conversation spinning down into frustration and discord. The decision was SO IMPORTANT that the players didn't dare make the wrong choice. In game disagreements were on the verge of becoming real life frustrations and tempers were fraying.

So I stepped out from behind the GM screen (metaphorically-speaking, I didn't actually get out of my chair) and told them pretty much everything I just wrote down in this here blog post. There was a sort of a pause while it all sunk in and then everyone immediately agreed on the option that sounded like the most enjoyable, exciting, and adventurous choice. The entire argument was over in less than a minute and everyone seemed pretty happy with the conclusion.

Except me.

Anytime I have to break the fourth wall and explain something directly to the players, I remind them all that this is "only a game." Everyone breaks character and the whole fantasy world that we're all working (playing) so hard to create gets a little less vibrant and feels a little less real. We never did get back into character that night. The conversation rapidly turned to Marvel's The Avengers and other non-game matters. I totaled up the experience points we had racked up for the evening, did all the necessary accounting, and the game wrapped on an up-note.

But I think I could have done better.  I'm just not sure how. There's a certain amount of deception that any role-playing game must involve. There are some fights the characters are simply never going to lose - almost all of them, in fact. But I want the players to feel on some level that they could always lose. That's what makes winning so cool. To use a movie analogy, sometimes the choice is between cutting the red versus the green wire in a bomb. Making the Wrong Choice is bad. But sometimes the choice is who to date. That's a pretty big choice, but from the pool of legitimate candidates, there may not actually be a wrong choice, just different choices. If we are always frank and honest and open about everything, a lot of dramatic tension goes right out the window, never to return. But if we aren't all on the same page about which decisions are important but safe, which ones are important and risky, and which ones are just color text ... well, that's just no fun at all, is it?

I'm still working on it. Has your table hit on this problem? How'd you deal with it? I'd love to hear from game masters and players alike.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012
Chelmsford, MA


  1. I don't GM (mostly because I just can't handle it - I've tried), so I can't comment on your end.

    However, I can comment from the player's side. Our groups have the same issue with trying to plan out the right option. Usually we'll plan for a bit, and if nothing major gets solved we do have one or two people who will just make the decision and that's the way we go.

    It varies a little depending on the players and the game, but someone just stepping up and acting in game is many times how a choice is made.

  2. I don't run tabletops, but I do run a LARP, and this still fits. I completely agree with everything you've said, and don't have any answers either. :)


  3. I have OOC discussions about the players' preference on the direction of the game all the time.

    My favorite way to offer choices is to create constrained choice:

    Choice A: Safer for you and potentially more treasure, 10% chance a demon will kill some townsfolk.

    Choice B: Risky for you and potentially less treasure, 1% chance a demon will kill some townsfolk.

    Then there are the plot choices:

    Choice A: Destroy the Orb of Ultimate Power to protect the world from its might

    Choice B: Use the Orb of Ultimate Power to remake the world the way you think it should be

    And the long term story choices:

    Choice A: Rally an army to conquer the heathen lands and bring order to chaos. (Series of quests, mass combats and social scenes to get NPC warlords to join your side and keep them in line). Go after the Blade of Sorrows later (with an army).

    Choice B: Turn South and search for the lost Blade of Sorrow, the most storied blade of legend (series of investigations and dungeon delves). Conquer the wildlands later (with a famous magic sword).

    And finally Real Chance of Failure challenges:

    You must rescue the princess before the ogres cook and eat her tonight at dinner. Do you ride through the woods at night (difficult and trecharous, ogres like to hunt at night, but horses can outrun them, if they don't break a leg), abandon the horses and proceed on foot through the woods (slower but safer, though ogres hunt at night and you can't escape them on foot) or wait until first light and ride through (faster and safer, but with a delay and still not without risk).

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  5. I ran a D&D campaign. It was a grand adventure saving the world and all based on two concepts, which of course I did not tell them.

    1) The players were the experts, they were uniquely qualified to save the world because only they experienced what they experienced.

    2) Anything they tried would work.

    At one point they delivered the Orb of Light to the NPC who was secretly evil, and they got to watch the sun shatter and fall to the earth. And then the real game started where they had to figure out how to fix the sun.

    This game failed. There was a lot of it that was fun, but the players couldn't grasp those two concepts. They kept asking for help, looking for someone to tell them what to do. And when they tried to decide amongst themselves they ripped each others ideas to shreds and got paralyzed by inaction. So they never tried to fix the sun.

    And I never broke the fourth wall and told them, not until the game was done. It left the game pure, that's for sure, but it was fundamentally a failure.