In case you didn't know, but also cared, the free DLC for Mass Effect 3 went live yesterday. This DLC gives an "Extended Cut" for the endings in the game, as well as providing a new hidden ending, to the whole series. You can see my - spoilerific - impressions of that by clicking this link. Mysteriously, thinking of Mass Effect got me thinking about choices in RPGs and how much the choices our players make matter. How many choices do we present to our players that are meaningful? How many are just illusory? Today, I want to talk about that.
What I Mean By Illusion
When I say that you have the illusion of choice, or that a choice is illusory, what I mean is that it actually doesn't matter what you choose because no matter what you are going to end up at a very similar destination. However, unless you have that glimpse behind the curtain you may never know this. For example, on a single play through of Mass Effect 1 (or 2, less so 3 but still there) you are presented with a lot of choices. However, many of the choices aren't actually a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. The choices are illusory. For instance, on one of my play throughs of Mass Effect I wanted my Shepard to be racist. There is enough dialogue present that I thought it might be a viable choice, except that Shepard can't actually be a humans first racist hero. No matter what, at certain points in time Shepard will defend his alien colleagues. It just isn't something you can do. Another illusory choice is which mission you go do first when given the choice. Sure, Liara may give some different dialogue if you go to where she is last, but ultimately none of the content is changed. The choice doesn't matter.
I say that illusory choices can come up at character creation for two reasons. The first is that if you are running a module, then the module is going to have expectations for the party set up. If those expectations aren't met, then it is likely to end in a party wipe or otherwise be a bad time unless the GM is really fast on his feet. Ever try running a module with 5 fighters? Yeah, it doesn't go so well. Especially when no one can detect traps or do anything about the threats that need to be weakened with magic first. The second way illusion comes up in character creation is when the GM has a very set story in their head already, but doesn't communicate what he wants out of the players before hand. In this instance, what often happens if the GM gives free reign to make a character, but then shoe horns the character into what they need for the story to work. Suddenly a character's father was a spy - hey, you didn't say dad wasn't a spy! - because the GM needs someone to have espionage in their family tree, and you just kind of have to go along with it. Alternatively, a player suddenly finds they have divine blood that will give them super powers - even if it runs contrary to the initial idea of who the person was - and has to cope with life doing that random thing.
Both Ways Lead Left
The most classic way you'll see illusory choices is almost any time when the party hits a fork in the road. See, the GM needs the party to go fight Snaptooth the Blue Dragon and his lair is on the right of the fork in the road - but the party/players don't know this. So when the players choose to go left, the GM switches things around so that way leads to Snaptooth. The fight happens, and things go on without anyone ever noticing the difference. At least until someone asks "what if we'd gone right?" and the GM has to scramble to make up an answer, knowing that he can't say "dead end" as then it wasn't really a choice, now was it?
Why This Happens
The reason we run into illusory choices is because, ultimately, the GM feels that there are things that need to happen and is trying to help keep things moving for the enjoyment of all. If the Players go Left, and nothing is down that way then the game gets really boring unless the GM wings something which won't be as good as the prepared encounter. At the same time though, the GM can't prepare for every eventuality that is going to happen but can almost guarantee that the players will go right for whatever he - or she - doesn't prepare for. Flesh out an entire city to cover wherever the party may venture? Guarantee they'll go exploring the woods outside. Why? Because it will be fascinating to them, and murphy's law decrees it so.
How To Handle It
The trick to handling it is to control the choices you present, and to make sure that the players know that they are responsible for the consequences of their actions.
How control works is simple. Don't give the players a choice when you don't want their to be one. If you need the players to fight Snaptooth then don't even put a fork in the road in front of them. Have the road go right by Snaptooth's layer. Now, take away too many choices and you are going to have issues - it is called rail roading - so you will have to give in some places. That doesn't mean you can't control how you present even there. For example, maybe going right will bring the PCs to a bandit camp led by the enchanted princess - something that will also move the story along - but going left leads to the dragon who needs to be defeated so trade can come back into the town. The PCs can do either or first, and as long as their are consequences to both ways you've given them a meaningful choice while still controlling the choice so that whatever they do will bring them face to face with the plot.
Sometimes the Player will make a choice that means nothing will happen. That is not your responsibility as the GM. As the GM your job is to give the PCs the chance to go off on epic adventures and do great things, to really tell their tales. If, however, the PCs choose to sit in the tavern all day and play poker, well that is on them. Sometimes a choice to be boring results in the player being bored. If they complain, tell them that you will try to give them more opportunities, but you won't force them onto a path. They need to take it when it comes by them. They'll get the hint, eventually.