Monday, September 26, 2011

Flashback - Presenting Bad Choices

It's been a while since I did the first one of these, and with it being late - and me being lazy - I figure it is time to do another one. Today's flashback is from August 27th 2010 (so about a year ago). The post will follow after the break, and then my commentary on the post itself. For those who are new - or just forget - the idea behind a flashback is to bring back an old post for discussion and to see if viewpoints have changed. In short, it's a way for me to use my old work as "new" content. Yep, LAZY.

Bad Choices

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?

Post Commentary
Honestly, I still agree with the meat of this post. As the GM your job is to present your players with choices. For a choice to be meaningful there can't be a clear cut right choice. Sacrifice can be involved - in fact, it should be involved in at least some choices - but that sacrifice needs to be controlled.

For example, a player having the choice to bribe the guard with their ruby knife or to knock the guard out is a fair choice because the player has ultimate control. If they go with bribery they lose their knife, but if they hold onto the knife they are at more risk of being detected.

Sometimes your players will force your hand. Sometimes the choices will be "Death or X." But those times should be few and far between. Why? Well, for one, these are huge moments where a character is showing their true character. For another, these moments lose their power - and change the feel of the game - when they keep coming up.

Your thoughts?


  1. I agree that this is the poorer situation for the players to be in but I don't think I've ever given them their options unless it was from the mouth of an NPC and my players usually know that the NPC is presenting them with the poor choice. Beyond that the players may decide to storm the jail but I usually let them decide on their plans on their own.

    So the choice is usually "Do we trust this NPC that his plan is a good one?" and the answer is usually obviously no. Mainly because my players are paranoid. I've groomed them well.

  2. Definitely. And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying to list out their options for them, but you can tell when those options are limited.

    To use the jail example, for the bad way the PCs could find that the guards rotate at strange/seemingly random times making it hard to infiltrate. New prisoners aren't let anywhere near the prince, and the prison is magically warded up the wazoo to prevent intrusion. Make it too hard to do anything but assault, and it comes across as "you must assault". Be prepared to work with your players and see what can happen.