Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Shaping Choices

We talked a bit on Monday about how choices can reveal two things about a character. First they reveal how the character wants the event to progress (i.e. we go left here, or I let this person die.) Second they reveal who the character is (this is the kind of person who goes left, or more poignantly this is the kind of person who will risk his life to save someone he doesn't know.) I also pointed out that you have to have players who will value things beyond their gameplay aspects for this to work fully as intended. Today, I want to talk about how we can set up and shape these moments.

Understanding A Choice
Before we can shape a choice we need to know what a choice is. A choice is a decision that a person/character makes that brings them down one path at the expense of not going down the other. At least, that is the choice at its most basic. To go further though I'd add the stipulation that for a choice to truly be a choice neither answer can be right or wrong.

What do I mean by this? Well, let's say there is a maze and the character can go right or left. If going right means death and going left means continuing through the maze then it isn't a choice. Why? Because there is a clearly right answer and a clearly wrong answer. No for a good choice to work both - or all - options need to be viable. They don't have to be equally viable, but they do have to both be viable. Perhaps going left is longer but safer while going right is shorter but has more traps. That is a choice. Both paths can work, but there are trade offs as to which does what.

Multiple Outcomes We Care About
Now that we know what a choice is we need to know what the character cares about. Why? Because we're building a choice for this character and that is only going to work as well as we want it to if there are things the character cares about. Fundamentally it doesn't matter if someone drinks Coke or Water when they go to a restaurant. Yes it is a choice, but since there is no care it doesn't matter.

No, for the choice you're building here you need the player to care. What does Grathod care about more: getting a +5 2 handed sword of Dragon Slaying or getting a +5 armored bracer of Dragon Warding? Both are equally powerful but one is offense and the other is defense. On a more story centric level though, would Grathod rather let the king be assassinated but stop the Lich before he can raise his army of darkness or save the king at the risk of the Lich growing so powerful that he can not be stopped?

The More The Character Cares The Tougher The Choice
This is where things get fun. The more the character cares about things the tougher the choice can be. This is why making your players care about more than just the game and what can help them is so vital to a great game and story. However, if you really want to see a character - and player - squirm then make them choose between two things they really want. Maybe they can finally become the Guild Master for the Thieves Guild but only if they give up their life of adventuring, or pass on marrying Glinda the Paladin, or steal from their good friend the Lord of Wintry Tower. The more the player, or character, wants something the harder it is. What can be real fun is when the player really wants thing A and the character really wants thing B and then watching the player vs. character in your friends head (though, for most people, the player usually wins ;) )

Not Every Choice Needs To Be Hard
Like everything else you want variance. The really hard choices should be rare. Easy choices should be common. Moderate choices should be in between. You want to vary it up for two reasons: one, it keeps things from getting boring and two it allows you to test the character on different levels and reinforce who they are. Maybe Samantha will do the right thing when it is easy for her to do or there isn't great cost to her but won't when it means great personal cost. On the other hand, maybe Samantha ignores the pleas of the downtrodden most of the time, but when it counts she does the right thing.

Shaping The Choice
Now you know everything we want for our choices. We first need to consider the character and what we want to find out about them. Something as simple as will they risk arrest to help someone being oppressed/bullied can work for our example. Next we need to choose the scale of the challenge. I'd recommend avoiding the huge time ones until you get a bit more comfortable, but we can do a moderate challenge. Third we need something the character cares about, preferably two things but we can work with one. Fourth, and finally, we need to put those two things on opposite sides of our choice and present the choice to the character.

As an example, Ikoma Ayanosuke is a bushi for the Lion clan in Legend of Five Rings. She is an honorable bushi trained in the Akodo style, but her actions based on a personal code of justice has also earned her the advantage "Hero of the People" and she has a reputation of caring for the peasants. On an ambassadorial mission to another clan Ayanosuke comes across retainers of the local lord beating up on a pair of peasant farmers for no reason. Does Ayanosuke continue along the road or intervene to help the peasants out? More importantly for this, how does she do it?

In this example the two things that Ayanosuke wants are "to do her duty" and "to protect peasants." Her duty comes up because she is on an ambassadorial mission and thus must make a good impression. Beating up the Lord's retainers, or nosing her way into the business of the Lord's retainers is going to put that at risk, however ignoring the plight of the peasants is an afront to Ayanosuke's sense of justice and could put her hard earned reputation as a hero of the people at risk. The other fun part of this choice is that it leads to further choices if Ayanosuke chooses to involve herself.  Does she do things with a soft touch or does she draw her sword and demand an explanation? On the other hand, if Ayanosuke chooses duty over the peasants then the encounter can end and the group can move on, or that can lead to its own choices further down the way.

On Friday I'll wrap this up with talking about how to know what a character cares about and how to help them care about things. In the mean time, if you have any questions please sound off in the comments. We'll likely come back to Choice really soon, especially as it touches on my favorite part of GMing: consequences.


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