Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Danger of Choice

On Monday we talked about Railroading and how it isn't always a bad thing. Today I want to do the opposite. I want to talk about player choice and how making things too open can actually be just as dangerous as too little.

The Thing About Too Much
First, to kill off the obvious, by definition too much is problematic. Too much is the point at which you have exceeded the healthy quantity of a thing and progressed into a dangerous amount. Too much choice is bad. Too much railroading is bad. Too much water is bad. Too much is bad. The question now though is how too much choice is a bad thing.

The More Choice, The Less Ties
I talk a lot about how choice is a great way to show where a character is in their head; who they are, and what they are, in effect. As you stack up choices, especially meaningful and soul-shattering ones, the mind will react to defend itself from the bad side of choices. It will stop caring.

This isn't a break through. Think about it: the kid who moves a lot, who regularly has to make the choice on whether to keep connections from a past area or break ties, will eventually just stop making ties. Why? Because the pain of the choice is too much. Sure, a clean break can be best. Sure, a maintained tie can lead to a great relationship. Doesn't matter. Choices by definition involve loss and loss means pain. The bigger the choice the more pain. The more we experience pain the more dull we become to it. It is simply the nature of life.

To keep things meaningful it needs to be done in moderation. You want to see someone snap? Put everything on the line everytime they have to make a decision. Eventually they'll stop caring and just destroy things to see what actually happens.

The More Choice, The Harder To Plan
On a practical sense this matters more. The more choice about where they're going, what they're doing, and how they do it the harder it is for you as the GM to plan. If the PCs never get locked into a chain of events then you can't plan out any big scenes. Well, you can plan out those big scenes but there is a good chance they'll be ditched and never experienced.

Wide Open Choice Gets Dull Quick
Wide open choice can be fun. As a player you can just play with the world, and as the GM you can stack up the consequences. Think of a game like Saints Row IV or the Grand Theft Auto games. Now, put yourself in the middle of the game, open the world, and take away all the main story stuff. The player now has wide open choice and can play with the world. Only, the game gets old quick. Eventually you get tired of firing rocket launchers into police cars. It just gets stale.

But Skyrim...
When I mentioned the last part to a friend he tried to counter with Skyrim. Skyrim, for a lot of people, may as well not have a main quest. They just go out, wander, and do what they want. Some people have even gone so far as to try and replace an NPC's life or work a wood mill out in the country for fun. That's true, and you can do it. However, even in that choice Skyrim also has times when it takes choice away. Quests can only be done in so many ways. Progression can only be done in so many ways. And while some people have had a lot of fun pretending to work a wood mill, I'd point out that that gets very boring at a game table when the interaction becomes "I spend the day cutting wood, then sleep, then do it again."

Remember, I Said Too Much
As a closing point I want to remind people that this is the dangers of too much choice, or choices that are too open. In moderation, controlled choices are great and amazing for your game. Shape the world, shape the plot, shape the directions the characters can go, and then let them loose in it. Open Wide can be fun, but without some moments where people get swept along it can also get very dull very fast.


  1. Great post. In the case of Skyrim, yes you have a lot of "choice," but it's only illusionary. There are still only so many quests, and many of the "choices" for alternate ways to play the game are utter wastes of time.

    I play most of my games by PBEM, so I have a lot of freedom to setup and change the course of the game as the players encounter it. I only create enough of the world and adventure as they need in the moment, and though I have rough ideas of the overall story arch, I have lots of time to adapt and change as the players react.

  2. That actually sounds like a very efficient way of handling that. PBEM and PBP are two ways I have only very limited experience of RP in, and the PBP I did was open forum so it was more like collective storytelling rather than a "game."

  3. If Blogger allows secondary titles, you should make this ones: eventually you get tired of firing rocket launchers into police cars.

    You make good points of why pure sandbox certainly has its drawbacks.