Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #244
5 Tips On Managing Player Choice
This Week's Tips Summarized
5 Tips on Managing Player Choice
- Choice Quantity
- Choice Quality
- Cost Versus Reward
- Calculating Choices
- Example Choices
Readers' Tips Summarized
- Split Party Tip
From: Natalie Bennett
- Split Party Tip #2
From: Andrew Santosusso
- Dry Erase Battlemats
- Get Your Minis At The Dollar Store
A Brief Word From Johnn
24 Hours At Work
Tomorrow (November 10) the BioWare Online Store opens its
doors with an initial offering of three premium Neverwinter
Nights modules for sale. This has been a great learning
project for me and I'm quite excited about it! I'm heading
to work in a few minutes and am scheduled for a 24 hour
shift to handle preparations and any post-launch tweaks. It
should be a fun time filled with coffee, more coffee, and,
um, more coffee! See you in two days.
Feel free to swing by the store and let us know what you
think, even if you're not a Neverwinter Nights fan:
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5 Tips On Managing Player Choice
By Johnn Four
Choice is a defining and critical element in roleplaying
games. It is one of the core things that make RPGs fun. The
GM sets up a milieu, the PCs enter it, and they begin
interacting with it. They might follow some plot hooks the
GM has laid out, or they might follow some self-created
hooks, or they might just pick a choice at random, such as
heading over to the tavern, and seeing where it leads.
If there are no player choices, then it's storytelling in
the traditional, non-game sense: the storyteller speaks and
the audience listens. The writer writes, the audience reads.
It's passive and not fun. Running campaigns and adventures
without choices is often called railroading, as the players
are forced to follow the single track laid out by the GM.
At the other end of the spectrum, if there are too many
choices, a game becomes meaningless. Without rules, social
conventions, and other types of boundaries, the value of
making choices decreases, and the outcome is that choices
For example, one time I planned a new campaign start where,
once the group was ready to begin, I would ask, "So, what do
you do?" No characters would have been made, no world
description presented, and no adventure prologue narrative
performed. I figured it was the ultimate in letting the
players build the campaign they wanted. I expected them to
start asking questions--many of which I would turn around
and ask back to the players to get them to build what they
Player: "So, what do I see?"
GM: "That depends. Where are you? Where would you like to be?"
Player: "Um, what is my character? Who am I?"
GM: "That's up to you. Who would you like to be?"
My vision was that the players would supply many of the
campaign details themselves and I'd corral any concepts that
I felt would be unworkable. However, as I thought about it,
I felt the idea was a bad one and I axed it. This type of
start allowed too many choices and would give the players
too few hooks to build from. Heck, I wasn't even going to
pick a genre--I wanted the players to do that. I predicted
that the players would get confused, or that the choices
made would be chaotic and not work tightly together to form
a long-lasting campaign: player A makes a Jedi, player B
makes a troll wizard, and player C makes a Musketeer, and
the game world is a twisted, unsupportive zoo of mixed ideas
There is value in limiting choices. For example, when
campaigns start, it's good to pick a genre, a rules system,
a game world, a starting area, and some initial encounters
to get things going. Each of these decisions limits future
choices (i.e. picking fantasy might eliminate firearms and
spaceships), but this have a positive, unifying effect.
How a GM manages choice in his sessions will directly affect
how fun and entertaining his games are. Fortunately, it's a
key GMing skill that can be discussed, dissected, and
One of the most important properties of choice is quantity.
How many choices have you made available at any given moment
during the game?
Think about each game stakeholder when pondering choice
- Player characters
- Whole group
The most common quantity problem is too few choices. If too
few choices are available for the current situation, then
the game will suffer:
- Stalls. The game stalls because the players are out of
options and don't know what to do.
- Players blocked, no-win situation. In this situation, all
the possible choices have costs that far exceed potential
reward, so the group does something irrational, proceeds
with reluctance, or does nothing at all. Alternatively, the
players might be in a situation where they don't know about,
or can't think of all their choices and are stuck.
- GM blocked. The players make an unexpected choice and the
GM is unprepared or stumped.
On the flip side, the other quantity problem is having too
- GM blocked. The GM might have too many ideas and can't
pick one, or he can't decide on pinning down a certain
detail or game element.
- Players stalled. Too many choices means too many
conflicting points of view and the game has knotted.
- Generic. If the PCs are offered the same choices over and
over again, then the game becomes stale, predictable, and
Please note that there is no absolute number for the perfect
amount of available choices at any given time. There will be
instances where a lot of choices are a good thing, such as
for a puzzle encounter. And there will be times when few
choices or none is suitable for the occasion, perhaps during
a DM-PC bail out or a climactic scene.
In fact, two GMs could run the same encounter with a
different number of choices and the players would enjoy both
instances. So, choice quantity is a matter of GM style as
When you check each encounter for choice quantity, you might
need to make an adjustment:
Too few choices:
- Introduce a new plot hook
- Provide more hints and clues
- Bring in an NPC to introduce a choice or two
- Trigger an encounter that opens up more possibilities
Too many choices:
- Introduce an NPC who removes a choice or two
- Fudge dice rolls to eliminate choices, possibly
- Trigger an encounter that closes possibilities
- The bard has been patient following the plot threads of
the other PCs the last few sessions. However, he's getting
upset now that there's nothing bard-like for him to do!
- The party is deadlocked. The dark elf wants to answer the
urgent summons of his Matron and he wants the PCs to go with
him for back-up. The fighter and ranger want to chase down
the demon that's been attacking everything in its path. The
mage wants to travel to the capital city right away and
catch the Royal Wizard before he sails away for six months
with the King. The halfling is standing beside a hole in
ground with a ladder sticking out of it, tapping his foot,
and declaring he's going down regardless if anybody follows
- The quiet player at the end of the table is bored. He
hasn't been asked what he's doing in the last hour, but he
doesn't want to interrupt and is too shy to try and get the
- The party enters the room and spots six goblins playing
poker. A couple PCs smile, reach into their pockets for some
coin, and want to try and get in on a game. Some PCs get
ready to parley so as to get closer to the adventure goal.
And some PCs half-draw their weapons, ready for anything.
However, the DM settles the matter abruptly and by having
the goblins leap up and attack. No card games, parley, or
other options are available now--it's fight or flee.
- The GM sits back and readies himself for a fun encounter.
The demon just entered the inn and is waving his claws about
threateningly. The critter's high intelligence, powers of
illusion, and comprehend languages spell ability should make
him a fun NPC to roleplay. However, the PCs leap up from
their chairs and charge the creature. Dismayed, the GM
implores, "Why are you attacking first without talking to
it?!" The players respond, "It's a demon! We didn't know it
wanted to talk. And besides, it's evil."
The goal is to ensure that everyone has the perfect balance
of available choices and opportunities at any given time.
For the most part, this happens naturally through player
questions, and the GM triggering encounters, presenting
information, and establishing an interesting milieu, but
there will be times when you'll need to intervene to
increase or decrease the amount of choices.
It's not enough to just offer up the right amount of
choices. It's also important to ensure each choice is the
best it can possibly be. Sometimes, this requires a little
forethought to tweak things just right, but most often
you'll be tweaking during the game as situations arise and
For example, GMs should avoid crafting no-win situations
unintentionally. No-win dilemmas often spark a lot of player
discussion and additional PC investigation. They also get
the players to cast about for more choices and will push
them to make an unexpected, irrational decisions to avoid
paying the cost of the other choices. If a lose-lose
situation does come up unexpectedly, then you might need to
intervene by sprucing up existing choices or adding more.
Level of reward is another factor of choice quality (see the
Cost Versus Reward tip in this issue). If the cost of a
choice exceeds the payoff by too much, the group might elect
not to consider it.
When checking up on the quantity of choices at any given
moment, whether in your planning stage or during the game,
also judge each choice available and decide if it is likely
to have a positive game effect. For example:
- Is it fun? Is the choice going to be fun to consider and
make? For example, the GM sets up a climatic encounter where
the PCs can achieve their most important goal by selecting
one of their number as a sacrifice. This choice devolves to
who wants to die? Not a fun choice at all in most cases.
- Does it increase the drama or excitement? Usually the cost
of a choice (time, money, closing the doors on other
choices, forcing a battle/parley/group action, etc.) elicits
drama and excitement. The PCs choose to attack, so life and
death is now at stake. A PC choose to lie, so now there's a
secret and threat of discovery.
- Does it set a certain mood? Will too few choices cause
player frustration? Will too many choices get the players
excited when you were aiming for dark and mysterious?
Can you change a choice so that a better mood is set? For
example, do you hand the PCs a detailed map so they can get
to the dungeon quickly without getting lost, or do you hand
them an incomplete map with a few errors in it so they must
explore and investigate more thoroughly?
- Will the choice spotlight a PC? For example, you might
switch up an NPC so that he shares something in common with
a PC who hasn't had much spotlight time this session?
- Does the choice improves and/or advance the story? Does it
really matter where the PCs sit if the action is going to
happen right away outside? Alternatively, rather than
seating the PCs and starting a magic duel in the middle of
the tavern, ask the players to carefully pick where they sit
because they can feel a strange, underlying tension in the
- Will the choice trigger a great encounter? Can you tweak a
choice so that, when made, it leads to or affects an
upcoming encounter? For example, you have just rolled for a
wandering monster encounter: 4 stirges. The obvious choice
for the critters _and_ PCs is combat. However, you decide to
add a necklace to one of the stirges. It's caught and tied
up in one of the creature's claws, and the necklace belongs
to a missing NPC the group are searching for. More choices
open up now, and they can be linked to the upcoming NPC
rescue (or vengeance).
Some ways to tweak choices:
- Increase or decrease the cost of making the choice (see
the Cost Versus Reward tip in this issue)
- Increase or decrease the potential reward (see the
Cost Versus Reward tip in this issue)
- Link the choice to another encounter
- De-link the choice from another encounter
- Link the choice to an important or relevant NPC or
- De-link the choice from an important or relevant NPC or
- Increase the number of available choices
- Decrease the number of available choices
- Link a choice to a PC
- Switch how a choice links to one PC and link it to another
PC or NPC
Cost Versus Reward
It's critical to balance effort and reward, and choices
always involve some kind of cost. The players, characters,
game master, and/or group as a whole will be the ones
paying, and if the reward doesn't match what's been
invested, then the fun factor goes way down.
For example, the PCs enter a tavern and a few different
tables are available. Ensuing is five minutes of discussion,
questions, and answers about the qualities and merits of
each seating location. Finally, the shadowy table in the
back is selected and the PCs seat themselves. Suddenly,
the Sheriff stumbles through the door, 16 arrows protruding
from his chest and back. Drawing their weapons, the party
hurries outside to find themselves tangling with a dangerous
foe in the middle of the street.
I've made this error many times (maybe you have too) and the
key is to either anticipate this situation and thwart it, or
to try and catch yourself in the act mid-encounter. Maintain
an awareness of your GMing at all times, if possible.
In the example above, five minutes+ of game time were spent
figuring out where the party would sit, and their choice--
and decision--was rendered meaningless because the encounter
ended up occurring outside, so it didn't really matter where
the PCs sat. The cost of offering the meaningless choice of
seating was game time--a group cost. And the reward was nil.
Other cost examples:
- GM preparation. If a choice is unable to be triggered
during a session, then you potentially lose preparation
effort. While a lot of your designs can be moved around if
missed, it often still takes some additional update time to
freshen up old plans.
For example, the PCs might trigger the choice 6 sessions
later than anticipated and now they're higher level--you
must spend time adjusting the difficulty level.
- Player preparation. If a player designs something, such as
a detailed backstory, and it never factors into the game
because the group or GM makes incompatible choices, then the
player might feel they've wasted their time.
- Pacing. In the tavern example above, game time was spent
on a meaningless choice (picking a table to sit at) that had
no reward, so the pace unintentionally slowed during that
- Free will. If either the players or the GM feels like they
no longer have any choices, then they'll lose interest in
the game fast.
During the planning stages or during the game, take a mental
snapshot of the current choices available to the PCs and
weigh their costs against potential rewards. Intervene, if
required, to restore balance.
How do you count the number of choices available at any
given time? The answer is you try to imagine the
possibilities. The most important possibilities to consider
are the players', so you need to put yourself in the
players' and characters' shoes and see things from their
- What is important to them?
- What are their likes and dislikes?
- What are their perspectives?
- How do they interpret things and why?
By gaining the perspectives of your players and their PCs,
you can better assess the quantity and quality of their
choices. And, you'll find you can become inspired with many
ideas if you have a good grasp of your group's choices,
because some of their choices will become PC actions, and
from those you derive encounter plans.
In addition, some of their choices will open up new threads
that you hadn't considered before, and these threads often
become additional choices for the PCs.
Seeing things from the perspective of those on the far side
of the screen is difficult to do, but the more you try,
the faster and better at it you become.
Here's a couple of tricks that help:
- Try playing once in awhile. This will earn you great
- Start first by putting yourself in a "generic player's"
shoes in your campaign. If you were a player in your own
campaign, what kind of choices would you have and how would
you feel about them?
Once you can envision things from a general player point of
view, then try seeing things from each PC's point of view,
and then from each player's.
- For most purposes, you can simplify choice evaluation by
grouping possible choices together.
- Try to think in both round-lengths and longer term.
Combining items 3 and 4 above then, if you think in terms
of combat rounds, which are normally 1 second to 1 minute in
length in most games, a number of choice groupings handily
One or more PCs are mobile. With this category of choices,
you want to consider potential modes of travel available to
- On foot
- In a vehicle or on a vessel
- Flying, swimming, climbing
- Magical transportation
One you have the possible modes of travel nailed down, then
you can gauge:
- What is the maximum travel distance in a round?
- How far could the PCs travel in a few rounds?
- Look within the party's travel radius and determine if
there are any notable locations, NPCs, or items in that
region. You want to know if the PCs could get in any danger
soon if they choose to move, or if they could enter
territory they shouldn't for story, preparation, or game
- You might also want to envision the trip the choice
represents. Will the trip be dangerous, a tactical error,
beneficial, uncomfortable, or notable? This will help you
evaluate choice costs and rewards.
These choices are about the PCs wanting to interact with
NPCs or fellow PCs in a non-combative way. Their options are
- Small talk
- Exchange information
If parley choices are technically available to a PC, then ask:
Why would the PC/player choose to parley?
- Gather information
- Make a friend
- Get the NPC to take a certain action
If you can accurately guess this, then you're sitting on a
gold mine of session planning and encounter tweaking
- Is communication possible? This is sometimes a big gotcha
in planning. It happened to me last session, in fact. It
wasn't until after the session that I slapped my forehead
and realized I should have created an obvious opportunity
for the PCs to parley with their kobold foes so they would
have had the choice of parley in addition to fighting and
- What will the PC likely say? With this question, you're
basically trying to figure out what approach the PC will
take and how likely they are to be successful at it. For
example, you'll know all the PC's communication/ability/
charisma scores ahead of time. What is likely to happen?
Will they be aggressive, agreeable, cotton-mouthed?
You'll also know your player's style and the character's
personality. Will the parley attempt likely result in
success, combat, failure?
Can the PCs choose to fight? An accurate answer to this
question is a wonderful piece of intel with which to plan
around. Can one or more characters technically choose to
attack? If so, how likely is this choice to be made?
Investigation choices often involve the detect and sense
group of skills that permeate RPGs. Is there anything to
examine, and can the PCs choose to examine it through their
physical senses, magical senses, or other senses?
A great question to answer is, what are all the potential
means of investigation available to the party currently?
It's helpful to ponder this ahead of time, because some of
the more esoteric possibilities can really stump you in-
For example, can any of the PCs rumour-monger effectively?
If so, you might consider whipping up some generic rumours
to tweak as needed during play. Another example is the
legend lore D&D spell. Various D&D clerical divination
spells should also be considered if playing that game.
Investigation choices should be monitored quite closely, as
they often end up being big time-wasters. For example, if
the PCs are glancing around and you want them to spot
something, avoid asking for a skill check. Instead, pick one
or more PCs to notice the thing automatically. Investigation
checks often require the players to make a dice roll, do
calculations, and then get their results to you--wasted time
and effort if you've decided someone is going to detect
something regardless of roll results.
As for choice quality, note on the list of available means
of investigation any unusual or underused investigation
skills and abilities. Opening up choices to use these will
- Player Discussion
The players might choose to chat amongst themselves, out-of-
character. Potential choices might be group planning, game
breaks, and information exchange.
For this group of choices, be aware of any that will
probably spawn player discussion. Decide if you want to try
to avoid player discussion, and if so, modify the choices
any way you can.
Magic and technology can multiply the choices available to
the PCs. For example, a stone removal magic power might let
PCs travel straight from the entrance through the wall into
the villain's lair, passing all the nasty rooms in between.
Track carefully the magic, equipment, and special abilities
toted by the party, and try to consider how the players
could turn choices into unexpected combos.
- Do Nothing
The classic choice for smart alecs. :) However, can the
players actually opt to do nothing? What would happen if
That's pretty much it - 7 categories:
- Player Discussion
- Do Nothing
When it's broken down like that, choices seemingly too
numerous to count become more manageable and your ability to
gauge quality and quantity improves. In addition, plotting
becomes easier too!
The other thing to do is think longer term than a few combat
rounds. Think hours, days, months, and years ahead, if
applicable. Grouping long-term choices into the categories
above helps make this task more manageable too.
When considering future party choices and options, focus on
answering where and who. The majority of long term choices
PCs make involve an NPC or a location. A few choices can
involve items, and a few can involve a timeline, but you
will probably only need to ponder those infrequently.
Once you have a idea of who the PCs might track down or what
locations they could head towards, you can consider asking
how and why and tweaking things with that knowledge in mind.
What are some real, tangible example choices that you'll
need to assess and tweak during games?
- Plot hooks and threads. What leads, invitations, and goals
are known or available right now? Do these things point to
any particular NPCs or locations?
- Clues, hints, and rumours. What information and sources of
information are the players interested in following-up on?
How would they go about the investigation?
- NPCs offering services:
- Who can the players employ or contract?
- Who could the players hire right now to accomplish
something they need?
- Would a particular NPC employment circumvent your plans?
- Who could the characters investigate in regards to
employment, service, or a contract? For example,
legendary NPCs, experts in other regions, NPCs rumoured
- Locations. Where would the PCs want to go, and why?
Consider such locations as homes, commercial buildings,
treasure sites, adventure sites, and sites important to the
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Readers' Tips Of The Week:
Split Party Tip
From: Natalie Bennett
This is something that I actually have a decent technique
for: give the PCs a portable communication device.
I'm a science fiction GM, so this took the form of little
earbud coms. For the campaign that I used this for, it was
an absolute godsend since one particular character was
always locking herself in her room to build things, and the
other characters would often end up exploring different
The earbuds allowed all the characters to know the same
things. It could get tricky if the split PCs were talking to
different NPCs in different areas since they would
invariably want to say something even if their character
wasn't in the right area. On the whole, it worked quite
well, since it allowed the group to stay in contact all the
time--unless their enemies jammed the frequency, of course.
For fantasy GMs, a magic spell can produce a similar
effect. Rary's Telepathic Bond can do the trick in D&D,
although I would make some modifications to make it more
interesting: make it an object that imparted membership in
the bond, make it possible to eavesdrop on the link with a
another spell, and/or make it possible (though difficult) to
trace the location of a person using it. It's always
entertaining when the PCs realize that their enemies know
their entire "secret plan" because they cracked the
encryption on their communication device.
I used this technique to huge success in an encounter that
was basically the PCs executing a terrorist raid on a city.
There was a lot of action going on in different places--one
of the PCs was sniping, one was controlling marauding
robots, one was planting explosives, and there was much
skirmishing. However, everyone knew what was going on, and
the coms helped to make that one of the most enjoyable
sessions I ever ran.
Split Party Tip #2
From: Andrew Santosusso
I discourage splitting the party by counting on the players
to punish each other. When the party splits, I simply take
them in turn while everyone else waits. Usually the waiting
players make good use of their time reading through item
creation or other rules, planning their characters'
progression, writing/expanding background, etc.
I do not really rush the player(s) I'm dealing with,
although I do discourage dawdling. And if waiting players
get antsy, tough! They have to wait. More often than not,
they make the players that sucked up too much game time in
the first place pay by eating up an equal amount. I've made
it very clear to the group that this is my policy, so if
they decide to split the party, they know the potential
consequences. Thus far, it's worked pretty well.
Dry Erase Battlemats
I'd like to add something to the tip at the end of the most
recent issue about laminating battlemats. I've recently
found an alternative to laminating. Since my battlemat is
about half a meter by one meter long, it fits into those
plastic pockets you can buy in art stores for portfolios.
The pocket fits anything up to A1, it wipes clean, and
unlike lamination, I can change the contents. This means
that if I want to draw out floor plans ahead of time, I can.
All I have to do is buy the right size graph paper (which,
at my local art shop, also comes in battleboard size).
Get Your Minis At The Dollar Store
I have found at the "Dollar Tree" stores a pack of 150
Miniature Army Men. Half are grey and half are green. They
are almost the same size as the lead miniatures you buy for
Get some model paint and a small knife and color them
however you need them.
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