As I am preparing for the first adventure in the second generation of my L5R game I find myself thinking a lot about the above 3 terms. In essence, at least in my opinion, those three words basically cover the three main pillars to support a good game. Today, I wanted to take a little bit of time to talk about all three concepts, what they mean to me, and maybe a bit about how I intend to utilize them.
Choice is at the core of everything. As the GM you need to give your players choices that are meaningful and revealing. Now, this doesn't mean that every choice has to be both, but those choices need to be there. Choices can't be false choices either. There can't be a wrong answer involved. If you ask your player if he chooses to save the princess or let her die, when the act of letting the Princess die will result in the player death or some other punishment, then it isn't really a choice now is it? It's just a question. A choice is only a choice when either option is equally valid. Do I take the high road, expose myself to the elements, but not have to worry about bandits,or do I take the low road and have an easier travel but greater risk of bandit ambush? That is a choice. Why? Because both options are valid, viable, and have their ups and downs. Which just brings up the question of what do I mean by meaningful and revealing?
A meaningful choice is, surprise surprise, a choice that has meaning to it. By this i mean that the choice holds consequence for the story, the character, or the game in some significant way. For example, take the "save the princess/don't save the princess" choice I mentioned above. If the player(s) were in a situation where they had to choose to either save the princess, a powerful ally, innocent, and long time friend; or to save a town/army/city/large population of people that could be a meaningful choice. Whichever way the player(s) chose could have big, long, and far reaching consequences across the game. Do they save the town full of people and go for the greater good? Do they save the princess? How do they justify it to themselves to do what they do? (more on this next.) The lack of a right or wrong answer - i.e. the game has to be able to go from here either way with the world accepting the player(s) choice and that having consequence (more on this later) - and the size of the choice makes it meaningful. Another example could be someone like Spider-Man having to choose between a close friend and a bus full of kids. Smaller scale, but just as meaningful.
Which leaves revealing. A revealing choice, again surprise surprise, reveals something about the character who makes them. We learn more about the lengths a character is willing to go to when they choose sacrifice a town to save a trusted friend, or a trusted friend to save a town. This goes hand in hand with being meaningful, but essentially just means that the choice should be meaningful on a personal level for the character. Big choices are good, and should happen, but some of the choices should involve the character and what they "own" or have otherwise laid some claim to.
Action is the fun part. This is the purview of the players and their characters. Action is the methods used by the character to enforce, or otherwise select, the choice that they want to make in any given situation. Just like with choices Actions have the possibility to be meaningful and revealing. Just like with choices, players, and GMs, should embrace the opportunities to make them such.
A meaningful action is much like a choice, and in fact often comes from the choice naturally. The character chooses to save the town and sacrifice the princess, the action tells us how they choose to do that. Perhaps they raise an army, or turn their army, to the town's aid and use it that way. Perhaps there is a thief who does a bit of daring stealthery to get the job done. When a meaningful action is successful the character adds to their own legend and takes another step towards being larger than life. When a meaningful action fails the character reveals that they are mortal, human, and fallible and it adds to the drama and tension of the character's personal legend. Both of these are necessary for a truly robust character to develop.
Revealing actions, again, are just like their counterparts in choice. They reveal how the character is and how they act. A character who never kills, who takes pain to not kill even when it would make things easier, is very different from the character who kills without remorse and takes the most expedient path to their goal. A mage who uses fireball and other "big boom" spells is very different from one that uses magic like Batman uses his utility belt, pulling out the right tool for each job and employing it with surgical precision. Every action taken reveals something about a character, even if it is only that they are willing, and able, to take that action. Embrace it.
Consequence is how you embrace the choices and actions that your players make. It is how the world reacts to the presence of the players and characters. It is a powerful powerful tool. Even at my worst as a GM I've had players tell me my game was worth it because consequences were a factor. There is a saying that I'm quite fond of. It goes: when you choose an action you choose the consequences of that action. Simple enough, right? But also quite powerful and something to remember as a GM.
Every action, every choice that your players make should have ripples in your game world, both large and small. You don't save the princess, well, maybe her father the king isn't as fond of you anymore. Maybe one of your detractors points out that you didn't even try to save her. Maybe one of your supporters gets cut down for defending you a little too vehemently. Maybe the princess's enemies are suddenly more inclined to hear you out because you've shown you'll make the logical choice. All of these are consequences that can ripple off of one action, and the best part about it is that all of these can happen at the same time.
Consequences can be meaningful. They can impact the world and set things in motion, or stop things from moving, that will have consequences of their own to be seen way down the line. Consequences can present further choices (how do you tell the King that it was his daughter or his kingdom?) and they can spur actions. As the GM your job is to be ready when those choices and actions come up and to have the world react to it, for good or for ill and both with good and ill.
Giving big meaningful and revealing choices to your players can be scary the first few times. The same with letting them take those big, meaningful, and revealing actions. But, if you master consequence, both become much easier.