Wednesday 1 June 2011

C is for Choices, Context, and Consequence (Part II)

“Decision Paralysis” occurs in a role-playing game when a player (or group thereof) simply cannot decide what to do.  The character may have many available choices, but the player cannot seem to make any of them meaningful within the context of the game.  The problem is almost always rooted in context or consequence.

If the problem is rooted within context, there are two potential problems.  The first is that the player(s) involved lack enough context to make a meaningful choice.  The second is that the player(s) have context, but there is no clear advantage to any choice that can be made. 

Both problems can be resolved by giving the player(s) additional information.  However,  we also want our players to make their own decisions, so we need to be careful not to add information in such a way as to bias their choices.  Usurping player choices – or, worse yet, getting the players to rely upon you to tell them what choices they should make – is one of the worst things you can do as a Game Master. 

So, how does the GM go about creating additional context without usurping player choices?

Let’s take an example:  A party is exploring the Gloomy Megadungeon of Huge Hallways when they come to a Y-shaped intersection, allowing the group to go either left or right.  The GM knows that the left passage leads to the lair of a troll, while the right passage leads to a hidden treasure, then more passages that end up in an area controlled by goblins.  The group, faced by the choice of going left or right (they have stated that they do not wish to turn back!) end up facing a moment of decision paralysis.

What should the GM do?

First off, wait.  We have been told so often in recent years that the GM is in charge of pacing, that some of us have forgotten that this is untrue.  Pacing is created through an amalgam of player decisions and GM-enforced consequences to those decisions.  If the players decide to spend their time wondering what to do, or discussing their options, that is a valid decision.  The GM must accept that not deciding – or not deciding right away – is also a choice, and should be treated like any other.  I cannot stress that enough.  The natural consequences of bickering over a decision in a dungeon hallway may be unpleasant, but if so, they should occur because they are natural consequences of the players’ choices – not because the GM wishes to control the pace.

If you enforce natural consequences, sooner or later (and most often, sooner), the players themselves will take control over pacing.  That is one of the important functions of wandering monsters in old school rpgs.  They act as a spur to keep the characters moving….but they are not an arbitrary spur.  They do not usurp player choices.

Now, perhaps one of the players will have his character look down both hallways, to see if there is anything he can see.  The wise GM knows that what the player is really looking for is more context, with which to make a decision.  And the wise GM also supplies that context, but not in a way that makes the decision for the player(s).

“The left passage has a bad smell, as though of rotting meat, and you can just see what might be a gobbet of flesh, dropped and left to rot by some creature.  The right passage has cleaner air, but seems to be infrequently used….there is some minor detritus where the passage’s walls meet the floor – a broken boot heel, a  gnawed and dried apple core, a few dried bones, scraps of torn cloth, and the like.”

This adds to the context available to the players – if you want a fight, go left; if you want to go in a less frequented direction, go right – without taking the choice away.  The contextual information arises naturally from how the area is used in the game milieu.  It might even lead to other contextual information – did the heel come from a goblin boot?  Does the apple indicate a (somewhat) close entrance to the surface?  When the GM provides relevant contextual information, that can be used to help make meaningful decisions, the players begin to pay attention to that information.  They might even start seeking it out on their own.

But, let us say that our party still doesn’t know what to do.  They can’t decide between left and right.  Now what does the Game Master do?

Well, the obvious consequence of standing there unresolved is that, sooner or later, the troll comes by.  Either it’s bringing back dinner, or it’s going out to find something to eat.  Or maybe it’s trying to get quickly to its nearby latrine.  The GM is fully within his rights to spring the troll on the unsuspecting party….or, they might hear it coming (from behind them, or from the left way) and hide.  Either way, more context is added….a troll lives down the left tunnel.

Again, this should not be instantaneous, but should arise naturally from the fictional milieu.  The goal is not to prevent the players from making a decision, but rather to enforce the natural consequences of a decision they did make….the decision to stand there and wait while deciding.  In a relatively safe open field, the party could take far longer to safely make a decision.  Although it might eventually rain on them.

Not every detail is context.  Context is detail that is relevant to making meaningful decisions.  As you develop your dungeons, populate your strongholds, and devise your wilderness areas, never be afraid to include too much context.  Instead, you should be thinking, “How can I telegraph this encounter?”  “What footprint should this creature be leaving in the area?”  “What clues can I give to hint at this secret?”

On the other hand, be wary of having NPCs that usurp player choices.  NPCs should always act from their own motives, and from their own limited information.  Rather than have a Council of Elrond that tells the players what must be done, have NPCs who urge the players in this direction and that….some offering good suggestions, others offering less good, all from the basis of their own goals and understanding.  Just because an NPC wants to hire adventurers to perform some task, it does not follow that the PCs should be perfectly suited to that task….or suited to it at all. 

Players get used to the idea that, if an NPC wants to hire them, this is “the plot hook”, and it should be taken.  If you want a living game, based on player choices, you need to break that cycle.  In minor ways at first, and then more strongly, have NPCs offer jobs that are not suited to the PCs.  They might be boring, and so glossed over, or they might be jobs that the PCs are outmatched or undermatched.  You must make certain that the players come to understand that NPCs are not the GM.  What they want is not what the GM wants.  They must be taken on their own terms.

When the players understand that you are not going to tell them what to do, that you are going to offer them many choices, and that the pacing of the game is going to be largely based on their decisions, you have set the stage for truly satisfying play.  This is what a role-playing game can do….what it is best at.  You cannot get that experience from a novel or a movie, or from a computer game.  This is where the medium shines.

Some people will tell you that it is hard to feel involved in a game where character death is common, or where choices are limited.  They site early role-playing games, with high character turn-over, level limits for demi-humans, or non-sword-wielding wizards as examples of these “flaws”. 

As always, play what you enjoy.  Life is too short for bad gaming.  But for my money, the only limitation to getting players involved occurs in the number of meaningful decisions they get to make.  And the important meaningful decisions are not in character generation, or in builds, but in actual play.  You can provide that excellence of play in any system – just remember that the important choices belong to the players, and it is your job to provide context to make those choices, and enforce the consequences thereof. 

You might have to disregard some of the GMing advice your game of choice provides in order to do this.   We’ll discuss this more in Part III, where we’ll be taking a closer look at consequences.

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