Choices and Consequences

In my last post about the importance of entertaining the players, I talked briefly about the importance of involving the players in an interactive story and making the players’ choices matter. This article discusses interactive stories particularly the importance of choices and consequences. A future article will give specific recommendations on how to prepare for an interactive game session.

One of the strengths of role-playing games, as opposed to other forms of storytelling such as movies and books, is the ability of the GM to shape the progress and outcome of the story in response to the players’ decisions, choices, and reactions. Pen and Paper RPG’s have a further advantage over computer RPG’s in that a GM can do anything he or she wants in response to the players whereas a computer game has a limited, predetermined set of options.

In my previous article I suggested that the players’ choices need to matter. This has two parts. The first is it should be a choice. (Which seems obvious, right?) The players should have reasons to think about the different options and weigh each one. In other words, the players’ decision should be more involved than a throw of a die. If the players have no information about the different choices, no understanding of the possible consequences, and no way to gain the information then it’s not really a decision. Once again, I’ll reference the article on Visible, Accessible, and Compelling.

Consider this poor situation: the characters are exploring an abandoned castle. They walk into a room and are faced with three doors. The three doors appear identical. When the characters investigate the doors; they neither see, smell, or hear anything from the doors and no NPC has given them a recommendation on which way to go. Eventually the players pick a door and proceed down the corridor beyond it. This investigation and the subsequent discussion among the players takes several minutes. If the GM is trying to entertain the players, he or she has just wasted valuable game time and has potentially lost the interest of several players. (As a side note- at a game store I once played with a GM that quickly narrated away unimportant choices and left only those that mattered. For example he would have skipped the room with three doors saying something like, “after 20 minutes of exploring the castle’s dusty corridors and long empty rooms, the party eventually stands before a single door through which they can hear the sounds of their nemesis.” His game was fast paced and intensely satisfying!)

The second aspect of a choice that matters is the consequences of that choice. Simply put, the consequence is the result of the choice. Consequences can be good, bad, or a combination. They can also be foreseeable, unintended, or include some of both. In my opinion this is one area that makes Massively Multiplayer Online games dissatisfying. There are very little consequences to a player’s actions. If a player kills a boss, completes a quest, or slays every murlock in an entire zone it doesn’t matter. The “massively multiplayer” aspect of those games requires that things reset for the next player and that they have an opportunity to engage in the same activities.

At their most basic, there are three types of choices based on their consequences- something good vs something bad, something bad vs something else bad, something good vs something else good. I listed them in order of increasing difficulty. It’s easy to “choose” between having your foot cut off or being given $100. Choosing between two bad things takes effort as the person has to weight which consequence will suck less. The hardest choice is between two good things. Part of the reason for this is that we have no good way to measure positive rewards. The other reason is that the human brain (for whatever reason) does not like having options taken away. So we are very resistant to choosing one good thing when it means permanently turning our backs on another. In the real world you can see this illustrated when people delay making a decision when any of their options are better than their current situation. For example, have you ever been late to a party because you Significant Other couldn’t decide which outfit to wear? Any of the outfits would be better than what he or she is wearing and being at the party is better than being stuck at home waiting to go. Yet they still can’t decide. Or perhaps you’ve not gone out to see a movie because you couldn’t decide which of two really good ones you wanted to see that night.

The first Spider Man movie provides an excellent example of a choice that matters when the Green Goblin tells Spiderman that he has to choose between Maryjane and a gondola car full of people. Peter Parker can weigh one option against another. Both options have clear and important consequences to Peter, though he may not have time to fully consider them (for example, if he had let the load of people die how would the rest of the city and the police force react to him?) This choice and Peter’s reaction to it makes for a great dramatic scene.

Applying the principals of choices and consequences to the room with three doors it’s easy to see how drama can be increased and the players entertained much more. Suppose instead of just exploring an abandoned castle, the characters were there because a princess had been kidnapped for a sacrificial ritual that will occur at midnight. When the characters enter the room with three doors, the GM provides them with ways of distinguishing the doors and things for them to consider when choosing between them. Perhaps there are foot prints in the dust leading through one door and yet they think they hear the princess screaming through the second.

The scene in Spiderman also shows how a good GM can react to the players’ decisions to make an interactive and entertaining story. When Peter Parker chose to save both Maryjane and the group of people, Peter created two more outcomes (everyone lives or everyone dies). It takes a quick thinking GM to react to changing events like this. However, the rewards in terms of entertained players and a dramatic interactive story is well worth the effort.

I know first-hand that this “free form” play can be very intimidating to a new GM. My game master experience was largely developed through the White Wolf Games (specifically the old Werewolf, Vampire, and Mage series). White Wolf games emphasize cooperative storytelling in which the players are given much more leeway to shape the story than is typical for D&D. The game master creates an overarching plot and determines key scenes, and then the players’ decisions provide substance to the plot framework. In my next article, I’ll give some tips and tricks I learned for preparing for and running interactive stories.