Thursday, February 5, 2009

Meaningful Choices

Having just looked at the idea of using equivocation to force a result on a player without their knowledge, I want to explore the concept of choices more generally.

Players need structured choices. A player with too few choices is not a player but an audience. A player with too many choices is not a player but a DM. When there is nothing but choices, play becomes unfocused, the story becomes bogged down in debate, and everyone stops having fun. The job of the DM is to narrow down the infinite canvass of possibility into the tight structure of a story.

DMs should give players choices for good reasons. There are a limited number of good reasons, and they are these.

1) A test of skill.
The player is given a small range of options, one of which is "right" and the others of which are varying degrees of "wrong". The player is given enough information in the environment to discern the right choice, if he or she is clever, perceptive, or patient enough. The choice rewards players for their intelligence.

2) A chance for self-expression.
The player is given a broad range of options, where the eventual choice meaningfully defines both the character and the game. This may be, for example, a "morality call", a setting of priorities, or a chance to define the future development of a location or NPC. The choice made says something important about who the character is and how they think, and lets the player express their uniqueness and individuality.

3) A means for player feedback.
The player is given two or three options, with information as to the likely gameplay consequences of choosing each option. There may be a "dangerous" option and a "safe" option, a "quick" option and an "extended" option, or a "roleplaying" option and a "combat" option. The player's choice lets them direct the game towards the the type of situations they enjoy and away from the ones they find dull or unpleasant.


That's it. They're the only meaningful choices. If your choice doesn't fall into one of these categories, then you shouldn't be offering it to the players. Or, alternatively, it should be a false choice such as the one we looked at a moment ago, where despite the illusion of choice the players proceed on to the same consequences regardless.

Needless choices will distress your players, and they'll make it unnecessarily hard for you as DM to deliver a high-quality game experience. Give your players a meaningful choice whenever possible, but don't stuff around with other ones. Your players will thank you.


Darla said...

Can I agree wholeheartedly without appearing sycophantic?

Greg Tannahill said...

No, I don't think you can. Blog rules compell you to needlessly troll. One easy way is to direct me to a supplement I've never read or present an unlikely anecdote that suggests I'm just playing the game wrong.

Craig Perko said...

I think this situation gets muddy in, say, a combat scenario. The players get to choose how to approach it, although their final outcome is weighted by luck. But I would argue that this is not easily lumped into "skill challenge".

I think that many players much of the time will approach it from a statistical approach, but it's also not uncommon for them to do something suboptimal to express themselves. Usually this is only slightly suboptimal, such as wasting too strong an ability on too weak an enemy, but it can be extremely suboptimal.

So I don't know that you can assume a choice is specifically type 1, 2, or 3. In fact, I think the best choices let the players choose which kind of choice it is!

I'm still undecided as to whether to draw finer gradations in "test of skill", though. Although this pertains mostly to video games, it may be worth considering whether various kinds of physical challenges should be lumped in with various kinds of mental challenges.

Greg Tannahill said...

You're right, combat can be a test of skill or an expression, depending on the demands of the game, but it's really only one or the other; for it to be a good test of skill it has to be challenging enough that deliberately approaching it suboptimally will hurt. It's up to the storyteller to clearly signal what kind of combat it is. This is possibly something that has been determined through an earlier feedback choice (although it's more typically decided earlier when setting the tone of the game as a whole).

Don't set up a skill challenge but let players deliberately showboat it; if it's going to be that kind of challenge, go all the way. Be bold in your storytelling.