Monday 6 June 2011

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

So, this is the third (and last) blog post looking specifically at the interplay between choices, context, and consequences.  As previously discussed, a choice is a decision and context is the information that informs a choice.  There is a third important element, consequences, that deserves a posting of its own, because the idea of consequence has changed the most in role-playing games.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, in mitigating consequences, role-playing games have also limited choice, and limited the meaning of context.

More on this below.

Again, Gentle Reader, I’m going to dispense with the “IMHO”s and “IME”s, and assume that you are smart enough to know that I am talking about my own opinions and experiences. 

Consequence is whatever happens as a result of choice.  For example, if Frodo & Co. stick to the road, they might be overtaken by a Black Rider, but if they cut through the Woody End, they might get lost or worse.  Destroying valuable artwork because it is of a necromantic nature means that you will not have the gold selling it might produce.  Not finding the treasure means that you don’t have it.  Giving the Arkenstone of Thrain to Bard means that Thorin is going to be upset at you.  Jumping into lava means you will die, and losing in a pitched combat is likely to mean the same. 

Without consequences that flow naturally from the choices made, those choices themselves become meaningless.  If Frodo & Co. have the same chances of meeting the Black Riders no matter what they do, and can become as lost on the road as in the open countryside, what value does the decision have?  If you can destroy the necromantic art objects, or fail to locate the treasure in a monster’s lair, and the gold finds its way to you anyhow, what does do those decisions matter?  In a word, nothing.

Likewise, if failing in combat, falling into lava, etc., never results in death (or death without the player’s permission), then failing in combat or falling into lava means less than it otherwise would.  There is a safety net built into the system.  To paraphrase a great man, you might as well be playing Candyland with your baby sister.

In the case of Dungeons & Dragons, this mitigation against consequence first reared its head (in a strong sense) in the DragonLance modules, where the GM is admonished to keep a certain NPC ambiguously alive no matter what happens.  In a weaker sense, mitigation against consequence can be seen as early as White Plume Mountain, where there is an encounter that “scales” to the PCs’ condition at the end of the module (or is omitted altogether!). 

It should be easy to see how mitigating against consequences lessens the impact of choice with a single example.  In White Plume Mountain, scaling or removing the final encounter based on PC strength would seem to punish players who did well in the module, while rewarding those who did poorly.  If all parties have the same final encounter instead, it is clear that the “good play” choices leading to a party that still retains greater resources at the module’s end are rewarded by having an easier time in the final encounter, while a severely depleted party might face a TPK (Total Party Killed).

Likewise, if losing in combat always means that you are taken prisoner or left for dead, and given another chance to succeed, losing in combat loses much of its sting.  The result is that the choices leading up to, and within, that combat matter less.

Some GMs work hard to include other consequences to keep choices meaningful.  “If you lose, your baby sister is enslaved!”  Even so, having your baby sister enslaved is simply not as meaningful as having your baby sister enslaved, and also being dead.  Obviously, if it is too easy to restore a dead comrade to life, and if there are few consequences for so doing, even death may lose its sting.

So, it is important for the GM not to mitigate against consequences.  Whatever the natural consequences of a choice are, those are the consequences that will occur.  Sometimes that means an enemy will capture fallen PCs to hold them ransom, and sometimes it means that the PCs are the main course in an orcish feast. 

Yet, not every consequence should be horrendous to endure!

In the last blog, I mentioned that “decision paralysis” is sometimes the fault of consequence.  This occurs when all the choices seem bad, and the player(s) have no expectation of being able to achieve a good outcome.

Game Masters naturally want their players to win, and to succeed despite the odds.  Because of this natural tendency, and because of the importance of consequences for making choices meaningful, much Old School GM advice is based upon fighting this tendency and allowing the dice to fall where they may.  There is a certain encouragement to be a Rat-Bastard Game Master (BRGM).

And that is all well and good, so long as the consequences are natural to the choices made….but sometimes (perhaps too often, depending upon who you ask), all of the choices lead to bad ends.  Or, worse yet, all of the choices but one lead to unnaturally bad consequences, meant to funnel the PCs into a single set of choices of the GM’s choosing.  And one can see where this is learned – if the GM is admonished to keep certain NPCs alive to fuel the story within official adventure products, why would the GM not conclude that the continuity of his expected storyline is more important than ensuring that the choices the players make is meaningful?  There are some GMs who refer to this as an “illusion of choice” – I believe it is an illusion of an illusion.  Most players see through it pretty quickly, and some will do increasingly foolish things to test the walls of their cage.

 Just how much plot protection is built into the game milieu?  Enquiring players want to know!

In order to avoid decision paralysis, it behooves the prospective Game Master to ensure that there are many chances for good consequences as well as ill.  Good consequences don’t have to mean treasure.  They can be people who try to help the PCs in some limited way (I’ve used farmers putting PCs up for the night for free to good effect), alliances, potential romances, even inspiring sights.  Knowledge is always good, and most players appreciate having learned things through play rather than through blocks of GM-provided text.

Whenever possible, consequences should lead naturally into new choices, and/or provide additional context to choices the PCs are already facing.  In this way, the players never run out of things to do, or leads to follow up on.  The game milieu becomes a dynamic place, where descriptions are paid attention to for the context they provide, context is used to make choices, and the consequences of those choices are dealt with while leading naturally into new choices.

And, if you can master this interplay, no matter what else you fail in, you will always be able to attract and hold players.  “Context à  Choice à Consequence” is probably the most important thing a Game Master can bring to the table.


The proliferation of mitigation against consequence is probably due, at least in part, to the extended time it requires to create a character in certain game systems.  In many older games, a character death meant that the player was out of action for only 5-15 minutes of real world time.  This is not so for all games.

Likewise, if it takes 45 or more minutes to resolve even a simple combat within a game system, even having another character ready beforehand doesn’t necessarily mitigate against long real world wait times until the new PC can be introduced.

I have met many GMs over the years, and “spoken” to even more online, who believe that they can mitigate against consequence by fudging dice in such a way that their players do not know it.  This may be true in some cases, but I have honestly never encountered it.  Gambling that your players won’t catch onto your clever tricks is a one-way ticket to wondering why you have no players, depending upon just how clever you think you are, and just how tricky.

If you are playing a game of this nature, it is best to use a system (such as Action Points or Fate Points) that allow the player to decide when to mitigate consequences.  This way, because the players are still choosing when to use such resources, the importance of player choice is maintained.  It is important that there be limitations on this resource, or there is no actual “choice” in using it! 

This is true even in games that mimic narratives where important characters seldom die (Star Trek, Doctor Who, or comic books, for instance).  In fact, it may be more true, because part of the conceit of these franchises/genres is that the heroes themselves believe that they are at risk!

It is also possible to set up an in-game situation where death (or some other consequence) simply cannot naturally occur.  The condition of “Captain Jack Harkness” in Torchwood is an example – the character is simply incapable of dying. 

As a final note, I have recently come across the argument that enforcing undesired consequences is a form of railroading.

Well, it can be, if the undesired consequences do not arise naturally from the choices made and the game milieu context they occur in.  I once had a fellow run TSR’s Module A1, where whenever I made a choice the GM didn’t like my characters began aging rapidly until they did what the GM decided they were supposed to do.  Needless to say, I agree that this is railroading, and railroading of such an egregious type that I walked from the table.

On the other hand, dying because you engaged 10,000 maniacs in combat as a 1st level 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons thief?  There might have been railroading leading you to the situation where you made that choice, but the consequence of that choice is not railroading! 

Likewise “People don’t like my character because he is a murdering sociopath” and “I don’t have the treasure because I destroyed it” are not examples of railroading.  Nor are they examples of the GM making moral/ethical choices for the characters.


In conclusion, role-playing games are about making meaningful choices.  If you enable your players to do so, even if you have difficulties mastering other parts of the game, you can be a good Game Master.

Context allows for meaningful decisions, because the context is the relevant information that the players have in order to make choices.  Never be afraid of giving the players too much context!  If the players seem stuck, you can always throw them more context!

Choice is what the players do.  They make choices for their characters.  As a Game Master, your job includes providing context for those choices, and ensuring that natural consequences follow those choices.  You job most emphatically is not to make choices for player characters.  It is fine to ask, “Are you sure you want to do that?” but you should not say “Your character would not do that”.  Master the art of keeping your nose out of PC choices!

Even when NPCs interject comments in PC decision making, make sure that you are flowing from the NPC’s knowledge and motives.  There must be a clear divide between NPC suggestions and the DM suggesting through an NPC.  It is worth your while to state clearly, and more than once, that no NPC suggestion should ever be seen as “coming from” the GM!

Most simply described, consequence is outcome.  Consequences should arise naturally from choices made, and from the context of those choices (the game setting, or milieu).  Consequences should also, whenever possible reveal more context and/or open up more choices.  Some game systems and/or playstyles encourage mitigating against consequences more than others, but you should resist the urge to do so.  When the Game Master mitigates against consequences, he reduces the impact of player choice.  An” illusion of choice” is rarely sustainable….if it is sustainable at all.

I have followed these principles for many years, and I have never been at a loss for players.  While no system can guarantee you the same success, mastering “Context à Choice à Consequence” should improve anyone’s Game Mastering.  As I said in Part I, 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 ever really satisfying.


  1. A good conclusion to the series. A request; could you please mail me at
    gabor [dot] lux [at] gmail [dot]com?
    I would like to ask you something.

  2. I'm super late to the party, but I've really appreciated reading the last three 'C' posts and plan to read many more; this is some great advice. Thank you!