Friday, August 27, 2010

Bad Choices

This is kind of an offshoot of the post I made yesterday, as well as stuff I have talked about several times before on here. It is also probably going to be a quick post, but hey, it's Friday right? So what I want to talk about today is bad choices. By that, I don't mean what the players do. That would be a bad decision. I'm talking about you, the GM, giving your players a bad choice. Specifically why it is bad, how it can be deceptive, and why you should avoid it. So, let's go.

So, what do I mean exactly by a bad choice? Well, when talking about yesterday's post with a friend he brought up a situation he hates in games. He clarified that he hates when he 'feels' this is the situation, not that it necessarily may be. Though, that could be in an attempt to preserve my feelings. We'll see as time goes on though I guess. Anyhow, on to the point. What my friend said was, he hates when he feels "I can go with A, which is the right choice where everyone lives, everything works out, and the game comes out alright afterwards because hey, I chose right; or I can go with B, which is the wrong choice that ruins everything and gets everyone killed"

Do you see how that could be a bad choice? Well, for one, it's not much of a choice at all. The group can go with the plan, or they can all die. Now, this is better than they can go along with it, or be knocked unconscious and forced to, but not by much. Do this too often, and you aren't giving choices, you are effectively holding the game hostage under the guise of "do what I want, or I kill the whole game". Not a very fair stance for the GM of all people to take.

The problem with this is that it isn't all that clear cut. I can think of several situations where that choice is perfectly valid to come up. Such as, the PCs break into a dungeon to save the falsely imprisoned prince. One of them triggers an alarm, and all the guards come down on them. The PCs fight, but they get cornered and whittled down. They're left with a choice, surrender or die.

What makes that example a good example of when it could be used, is that it was player action that brought that choice up. They could just as easily be killed in the fight than be given the choice. The whole situation is because the PCs decided to break into the dungeon. But the difference context can make on whether or not it is a good choice is staggering. For example, to add another layer to the problem above, lets see how it can go back to being a bad situation. All it takes is one little addition.

Without saving the Prince from jail, the PCs can not progress any further in the game, and the only way to save the prince from jail is to assault it.

See, now we're back to the GM forcing the decision. Do you see the difference in what I am talking about here? The difference in what is a bad choice, and what is simply a choice the PCs have brought down on themselves? Games are about choice, if there is no choice you shouldn't be running it as a game. If the PCs bring a situation down on themselves, by all means, go after them for it. However, make sure that the PCs did actually have a choice, and that the choice wasn't "We can win" or "We lose". In any situation, follow it back to the point where the PCs made a decision with no forcing, prompting, or other form of plot coercion from the GM. If you can't find that point, or at that point the choice is "win or lose" it is probably a bad choice.

In quick summation.

The two rules about choices in your game.
1) The choice should never be between "Everything works out" and "Everyone dies"
2) When you understand rule 1, you'll know when and where it is ok to break it, and how.

Oh, and for example with the prince situation.

Good Choices
The Prince must be recruited for the PCs to proceed in their plan. the prince is in jail.

Choice: Assault the Jail, Use political maneuvering to get the prince out, get arrested and try to break out with the prince through guile, sneak in, do nothing.

Assaulting is the fastest but most dangerous. Politics is possibly the safest, but can also show the PCs hand and gain new enemies. Getting arrested could get everyone stuck in jail for a long long time. Sneaking in puts one PC at very high risk. Doing nothing, of course, does nothing and lets the situation further develop. In each of those avenues are multiple choices, and some things the PCs do can lead to ruin, but while the choice is presented by the GM the path is totally up to the PCs. They own their actions.

Bad Choices
The Prince must be recruited for the PCs to proceed in their plan. The prince is in jail.

Choice: Assault the jail, do nothing.

Assaulting means using violence and combat to get in, get the prince, and get out. Bold, daring, and lethal. Doing nothing would let the situation develop, but as the PCs wait nothing changes. People get weaker, things get harder.

An extreme situation, but you see what I am trying to say, right?


  1. That really makes a lot of sense. I've never GMed, but I know the most frustrating moments for me in games have been where I felt like a puppet with someone else holding the strings and being afraid to be creative because moving from the storyline was "punished."

    I def agree with your number two--particualrly in L5R those rules can be broken--sometimes it's EPIC and a player can make the choice between life or glory. But I am rather uncomfortable with that sort of thing coming up in the early part of a game. It's no fun to have to create a new character every could of sessions if you didn't make the 'right" choice, especially if the "wrong" choice was far more likely of an established character.

    I hate acting out of character more than I hate accidently killing it.

  2. In my GM career I have been a railroader from time to time. In the case I remember the most, it was because I was lazy. I was running an adventure module and hadn't really read through or planned enough in advance. As it turns out, that module was incredibly railroady, and I just went with it. Turns out that players don't LIKE being directed into one course- AND ONLY ONE COURSE- no matter what they do. Huh, who'd have thunk it!?

    It all came to a head when the players, who had managed to recapture a gunship from some bad guys, were suddenly caught by tractor beams and pulled into the hold of a Star Destroyer. One of the players got the idea of using the gunship's missiles to blast their way out. Well, the plot of the module demanded they get captured. So they were faced with the choice of 'fire the missiles and kill themselves' or surrender. Needless to say, they weren't happy. And since then, I have been particularly sensitive towards that kind of no-win choice.

    Of course, that isn't to say that sometimes you shouldn't throw an insurmountable object against the players. Afterall, those kind of setbacks make for great drama. The deal is, you shouldn't make a habit of it, it loses its dramatic effect and just becomes frustrating.

  3. I couldn't agree more.

    A no win situation, done with care, and warning, can be a fun thing to add to a game. I've warned my playgroups a couple of times when planning strange situations. "There is an opponent in this session who you can NOT beat the normal way. So be prepared to use your heads, and don't be afraid to run if you feel the need". Stuff like that.

    On the one hand, some GMs may argue that the warning just tips them off and can ruin the moment. But I'd rather a little bit less IC drama to prevent a whole ton of OOC argument. Especially when puzzles are always super easy for the GM to solve and see through, afterall, they know the answer.