If I were asked to give advice to a new Game Master – or even an old hand looking to better her game – the thing I would go on about is the interplay between choices, context, and consequences. In my experience, anyone who understands this interplay will be at least an adequate GM…and no one who does not, no matter what their other fine qualities, is never really satisfying.
From hereon out, I’m going to dispense with the “IMHO”s and “IME”s, and assume that you, the Gentle Reader, are smart enough to know that I am talking about my own opinions and experiences. And, if I am wrong in that assumption, feel free to Comment and tell me so!
At the most basic level, a choice is a decision. Do we follow the path, or go off into the woods? Do we explore the swamp in search of the ruins of Zondo’s Castle of Phantasmal Fun? Which passage do we take at the intersection? Should we parlay with these goblins? Do we trust them? Do we run from the floating gaseous eyeball of death rays…or do we fight it?
Context is the information that informs a choice. The choice to follow the path or go off into the woods is meaningless unless one has some idea what each choice means. Do bandits lay ambushes along the path? Is there some lost ruin supposedly hidden in the woods? Is there some landmark the characters can make for? Are they merely trying to cut off a wide curve of road they know is ahead? Are they trying to throw off pursuers? Is there a chance of getting lost if they leave the road?
Consequences are what happen as a result of making a choice. You follow the path, and arrive at the village. Or you meet some bandits. Or you take to the woods and get lost. Or escape the wraiths that are pursuing you to recover a magic ring.
Ideally, the consequences of any given choice lead into new choices. Rather than simply arriving at the village, you arrive at a village where a man is being beaten by a crowd. Do you intervene? When you run into the bandits, do you flee? Fight? Let yourself be robbed? If you are lost in the woods, what do you do? What do you discover? What do you do about it? Having escaped the wraiths, you come out of the woodland near a farmer’s field. Do you accept his invitation to dinner? What do you tell him about the strange folk asking about you?
When your game seems to be lagging, it is most likely due to either a lack of apparent choices or enough context to make those choices meaningful. The easiest way to renew the energy of a game session is to interject a new choice, or to provide some information that enhances the context of already existing choices.
I have heard folks complain about the amount of background information available in some published adventures, “with no means for the players to learn it”. Huh. Of course there are ways for the players to learn that information! One of your major jobs in presenting a published scenario is to examine that background – that context – and figure out how the players can learn bits and pieces of it. Then, when play falters, you have something more to ratchet up the excitement than another wandering monster.
(Not that there is anything wrong with a sudden combat. One of the reasons that combat is popular in role-playing games is that the choices are clear, both in context and in consequence. The context is, “That bugbear is trying to kill you!” and the consequence is “If you don’t stop him, he will!” Much of the beauty and excitement of combat can be understood by thinking of it in these terms. They will also help you to devise more interesting “combat encounters”, by encouraging you to vary the context [often by location, such as on giant gears, requiring different choices], or especially by outcome [when innocents might die, or when your opponent wants something other than to slay you – to capture you, perhaps?]
It isn’t just background information that provides context. One important part of context is the “footprint” of creatures in the game world.
A creature whose presence is foreshadowed is often more effective than one who is simply thrown at the PCs out of the blue. Let us take a basilisk as an example.
With one GM, the basilisk simply appears as an encounter, perhaps turning one or more characters to stone before being ultimately slain. For the players, it may seem like a GM-driven “gotcha!”, and whatever deaths occur are probably going to feel anti-climactic. How could they feel otherwise? The players have had no chance to anticipate the encounter. Their choices leading to the encounter lack the context needed to make them feel meaningful.
With another GM, however, the players get to hear fearful goblins speak in hushed tones about the “Mistress of the Dark Chasms”. They see the lizard-like drawings the goblins make before the altars where they worship Her. They find the broken bits of goblins turned to stone by the creature, and may even see where it rubs its skin against the rocks (including, perhaps, a cast-off skin?).
Now the players have some context with which to base their decisions. They can stock up on mirrors, try to match their magic to the challenge, or bypass the area entirely. The cast-off skin might give them the idea that the basilisk could be blind at some point, and thus far less dangerous – some divination might be in order. Finally, if they do enter the Dark Chasms, and some of the PCs are petrified by the monster, it no longer feels like a “Gotcha!” The outcome is a natural-seeming consequence of player choices.
As another example, imagine that you are devising a campaign milieu in which you imagine that a great deal of the action will take place as wilderness exploration. How do you control pacing? How do you make the wilderness interesting? Once more, our old friends, Choices, Context, and Consequences come to your aid.
The main bane of wilderness (and, to some extent, town) adventures is that they are seemingly-open-ended. The choices seem to be limitless, which actually makes it very hard to choose. After all, it isn’t enough to simply select a compass direction and trudge along…we want our choices to be meaningful. And to be meaningful, they require context.
We can first provide context by including some landmarks. Landmarks in a role-playing game do the same thing they do in the real world. They provide us something to steer by, to aim toward, and to fix our location with. If you are lost, you can look for higher ground, find a landmark, and correct your course.
Landmarks can have reputations that provide further context.
The Old Forest is known to be queer, and the Withywindle that runs through it is the heart of its queerness. Because the hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring know this, they know also that they should be trying to get through the Old Forest as quickly as possible, and to avoid the Withywindle (even if they cannot do so successfully). These rumours not only inform the hobbits’ choices, but they foreshadow their encounters with Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil.
Likewise, in a role-playing game, if the great mountain range known as the Trollshanks is said to be home to trolls and giants, the players know that they are likely to encounter those creatures, and prepare accordingly. If they know it is famous for its steep cliffs and deep gorges, they will prepare climbing equipment, or be prepared to make choices to go around. If they know further that a rich dwarf mine was located there, that has since fallen to evil, they will also have motive to actually enter the area.
Among other things, context (1) foreshadows potential encounters, (2) foreshadows potential rewards, (3) allows the players to set goals, (4) allows the players to understand the goals of other creatures within the game milieu, (5) gives clues that allow for “aha!” moments when the players put things together, and (6) makes choices meaningful because context foreshadows consequence.