I somehow stumbled on this article by the AngryGM the other day, and while it wasn't what I was looking for at the moment it was something I am interested in in general so I took a look. Angry's voice isn't for everyone, but I've found his advice on GMing is generally pretty good, and this article is no different - if a bit long for my tastes. One thing that he mentions that I want to reinforce is just how important Decision Points are to not only an encounter, but to a session and to a campaign as a whole. Honestly, by focusing on decision points and reducing time between decision points it seems you can make your game a whole lot stronger.
What Is A Decision Point
A Decision Point is anytime a player or character has to choose between multiple meaningful options. Angry makes the comparison with a Wizard in combat. If the Wizard has to choose between which spell to apply to a problem, no spell at all, or something else, they are making a meaningful decision in how to spend their resources. If the Wizard is out of spells and thus is just defaulting to a choice (i.e. shooting a crossbow) they are not making a meaningful choice. Angry further calls out that you can see when a player doesn't have, or otherwise isn't seeing, the decision point in an encounter when they start saying things like "I guess" or "All I can really do is..."
The presence of these Decision Points is one of the reasons I think that 5e gave so many "spend these resources" decisions to multiple classes. Choosing how you spend those resources not only gives characters some extra power to feel cool with, but also increases their Decision Points in combat. And that is important.
Decision Points = Engagement
Why are Decision Points important? Because any time someone is at a Decision Point they are engaged with the game. Not all Decision Points are equal, and some people navigate them faster than others, but in that moment while the person has to weigh options and make a choice they are engaged with the game.
Odds are if someone is engaged with the game, they are having fun. This is also why Angry recommends ending encounters (and moving on) as Decision Points vanish....because you've just lost your engagement, so you just lost your fun.
Not a Decision Point? Not A Dice Roll!
I've been guilty of this, but consider the situation. Two characters of mechanically equal speed are in a chase. Obviously the character in front chooses to "Flee" and the character in back chooses to "Chase" otherwise you don't have a chase. You have them roll dice and they both roll successes. What do you do?
There is no real Decision Point here. The person in front still does not want to be caught, so they are obviously going to choose to flee. Right? And the person in back still wants to catch them, so they're going to choose to Chase. Now both players just roll dice until one beats the other enough times to 'win' by whatever metric you decide on. It works, sure. In a movie or tv show it could even be exciting with dramatic cuts and displays of parkour. But in a game? It's just two people rolling dice and barking numbers at each other.
So what do you do? Well, you can either let that one roll solve the whole thing. After all, that is the one time where a meaningful choice was made (Flee or Not for one, Chase or Not for the other.) Or you can add decision points. This doesn't have to be complicated. You can give someone a choice between two routes: one is harder to navigate but favorable to them and thus will gain them more ground in the chase but against a harder difficulty, the other is easier but more obvious so gains less ground. Does the person go slow and steady or do they gamble?
You can do more with structure to spice it up, but just by putting that choice in can justify the second roll with a meaningful decision in approach.
The same applies to other things. A player tries to pick a lock and fails. If they can just try endlessly, why even have them roll? They've already met the obstacle and failed. However, you can make it a decision point by giving a choice: abandon the lock, or try again but risk getting caught by a patrol.
Decision Points Don't Have To Have Dice Rolls
Like the bold text says, decision points don't have to be related to mechanics or dice rolls. You want to add tension to an adventure, put two things in danger and make the players choose which one they go to first. Put two beloved NPCs at odds, and make the PCs choose sides.
Done right, these moments can bring up all sorts of fun drama and RP inside the group as people disagree on priorities or who to help. Done wrong, a choice is still made and you can see things like players engaging beyond their normal means because they're trying to help everyone.
Protagonists Make Choices And Live With Consequences
In general we like and encourage creators to have stories with pro-active protagonists. Why do we like pro-active protagonists? Because they make decisions. And when you make a decision you make a choice, and when you choose something you also choose the consequences of that something. We love the drama of a character making a choice and suffering from - or being rewarded by - the consequences of that choice.
It is no different for an RPG encounter, session, or campaign. You want to make things more interesting, more dramatic, and more fun? Increase the number of decisions your players get to make. And when they make a decision, let them have all the good and bad that goes with it.
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