Game Mastering – Meaningful Choices

Controversy between players is one of the most fun aspects of table top RPGs. When the situations presented in the game don’t have perfect solutions, players might disagree about what to do. The more difficult it is to decide on a course of action, the more there is to talk about.

Game masters try to give their players the feeling that their decisions matter. It’s boring when encounters aren’t engineered well. Few people enjoy a railroad. A false choice occurs when it looks as if there are two ways to go, but the players can tell one is much better than the other. Imagine a fork in the road, where one path leads off a cliff.

There are three main types of choices GMs give their players that are unsatisfying: equally bad, obvious, and random.

Equally Bad

Would you prefer to drink poison or be shot in the head? There isn’t anything to talk about.

Obvious

Many sandboxes fall into this category. For example, the players might discover that there are three different enemies their first level party can take on.

1 – Some goblins that stole a heard of sheep.

2 – A Frost Giant has declared himself king and enslaved the dwarves that live on a nearby mountain.

3 – A dozen Anti-Paladins are waging war in the east and forcing towns to pay them taxes.

Something that makes this situation worse is when players assume that it isn’t a false choice, and that they can meaningfully engage each one. They might try to evacuate the dwarves or pick off a single anti-paladin. When the party gets hammered or captured, the players will be angry that their expectations weren’t met.

Random

There are two doors. One leads to the treasure. The other leads to a lion. This is sort of a “Let’s Make a Deal” situation where players might go through the motions of choosing the right or left-handed path, but they will know that it doesn’t really matter what they decide.

This situation is made worse when the players think the GM fudges the dice. If they’ve lost trust in the GM, they might pick instantly, without talking at all, expecting the GM to put whatever he wants behind whichever door they choose.

Making the Choice Count

To give the players something to think about, you want to make the choice as difficult as possible, with different risks and rewards depending on which way they decide to go. There are many ways to add depth to an encounter.

Moral Grey Areas

A choice can be made more difficult by forcing the party to sacrifice different things depending on which way they go. Do you risk 20 to save 10? Do you side with a lesser evil against a greater one, even if you don’t know for sure that you need its help? Do you permit evil acts from followers while in pursuit of a greater good? Do you sacrifice 1 to ensure the survival of 2? 10?

Greater Long-Term Gains vs. Smaller Short-Term Gains

Does one path offer long term gains? Imagine hunting a magic item for a wizard. The party could hand it over in exchange for an agreed amount of gold (too little), making him an ally who could teach spells and sell magic items. If they keep it, the wizard becomes an enemy, but at least they have the item.

Creating New Enemies vs. Increasing Danger with Current Enemies

What if killing the goblin king lets a nearby troll move into the area? What if the only thing keeping a wizard in check is the evil overlord? What if impeaching the president puts the hated vice president in charge? If the players know about the situation, they will want to discuss their options. Do they go after the more distant enemy first and allow the local enemy to grow in power, or do they attack each in turn?

One Path is Easier but Presents Greater Danger in the Case of Failure

Is one path easier than the other? Does the easier path have a random chance to become hugely dangerous? Does one path have random treasure while the other provides a great chance for moderate treasure?

Imagine a long rope bridge. The party could cross it, but an enemy might show up on the other side and cut the lines. A giant bird might attack people crossing, occasionally. They could climb down the cliff and back up the other side, but they know they will lose time and fight known enemies. The players will want to discuss which path they should take.

Again, trust from the players is critical. If they believe the GM fudges the dice, they will assume that his preferred outcome will happen, no matter what.

Preparing a Sandbox

I like to create three scenarios in any given map that the players could reasonably tackle. Some of them could have ties to higher level encounters or to one another. If the GM does a thorough job detailing the relationships, goals, and time tables for the different enemies, he won’t need to figure out exactly what information the players will need ahead of time. The fact that it’s there means it can come out during play.

This sort of game mastering builds trust. If the players know that there’s depth to the story and that the forces they come against are interacting, they may take it upon themselves to investigate the game world. This can even make them want to play weaker but highly skilled characters that can gather information, rather than the most powerful killers that would have to stumble in blind.

The players might decide that they want to charge in with combat characters to see what happens. That’s fun for some people, and okay. It can feel rewarding and interesting to see the world unfold as the party takes the most direct route. A game with lots of action and little thinking is still more enjoyable if the players can talk about why things happened the way they did, and that the reasons make sense to them.

Do you have any advice for GMs trying to give their players meaningful choices?

Good luck with your games!

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