How to Offer Diabolical Choices to Make Rewards Feel Well-Earned

This is Part II of a series on How to Make Encounters Fun. Read Part I, Part III, and Part IV here.

There are three main things I look at when trying to make encounters fun:

  1. Earned Rewards
  2. Advancing Character Arcs
  3. What I (You) Bring To The Table

While encounters have many ingredients, dials, and levers, if you hit high notes with challenge, plot, and your energy, you’ll make encounters consistently fun.

And on Friday, I mentioned there’s a cool tool in my GM Toolbox for dishing out diabolical choices so that rewards feel well-earned.

It just so happens that this technique also advances character arcs in spectacular fashion.

But first, what is a character arc?

I love Sly Flourish’s campaign outlines. They were a major inspiration for my Campaign Plotline method that I teach in Wizard of Story. Here’s his githyanki and mind flayer one, for example.

So, imagine a plotline for each player character. Whether you base it on levels, milestones, or story beats, every PC in the party has their own evolving plot arc that you mesh with your main plot or combo with sandbox GM Moves.

However, a common question that hits my inbox is, “Johnn, how can I hook my players better? They never bite on them.” Also, “Johnn, how do I keep my plots going?”

Which brings us to today’s fiendish instrument that does all three things for us:

  1. Dishing out diabolical choices (this has never failed to engage my players)
  2. Creating irresistible hooks (chomp, chomp, chomp)
  3. Advancing character arcs (and any kind of plot — even your primary one)

The tool I’m talking was yoinked from Blades in the Dark, and it’s called The Devil’s Bargain.

To quote the BitD SRD:

The GM or any other player can offer you a bonus die if you accept a Devil’s Bargain. Common Devil’s Bargains include:

  • Collateral damage, unintended harm.
  • Sacrifice coin or an item.
  • Betray a friend or loved one.
  • Offend or anger a faction.
  • Start and/or tick a troublesome clock.
  • Add heat to the crew from evidence or witnesses.
  • Suffer harm.

I have modified this approach for my non-Blades in the Dark games. Instead of negotiating over mechanics and future plotting, a player is met with a difficult situation and we game things out. A dilemma. Then the player makes a decision with sweaty palms, and I referee the consequences.

For example:

Johnn: “Roghan, as Templeton unleashes his holy cleansing flame and scorches the evil creatures, you see that one of the surviving kobolds wears a helm bearing your family’s crest!

The kobold turns to flee, while the rest swarm Templeton and Ignitus. What are you doing?”

Roghan’s player has a tough choice. He’s the frontline meat shield. He can rush to defend the cleric and magic user, or give chase. Should he give chase, he must delve deeper into a trap-infested, enemy-controlled lair. The fleeing kobold will surely lead him into great danger. Finally, he’ll likely want to somehow capture the kobold for a “pleasant chat”, or at least recover the helm for clues — both uncertain outcomes.

Meantime, I win too. [Evil cackle.] I might be able to split the party, giving my little friends an advantage. And no matter what, I’ve earned the attention of Roghan’s player, Sandy, for the rest of this 5 Room Dungeon, because Sandy will be on the lookout for more clues about Roghan’s heritage.

By choosing the right moment to drop this small “throwaway detail” into play, Sandy is guaranteed to bite my plot hook.

In addition, Sandy has a chance to advance Roghan’s character arc, making the encounter meaningful. Yet, the reward will be challenging to acquire, and therefore well-earned.

And note that you can introduce mechanical benefits if you choose. I do this if I can’t think of a narrative approach that can stay entirely in-character. I might give Roghan a bonus dice to their chase die pool should they pursue the kobold, for example. Apply Devil’s Bargains according to your GM style.

Have more fun at every game!

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