5 Tips On Managing Player Choice
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #244
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 becomes unimportant.
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 wanted.
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 and whims.
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 tweaked.
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 quantity:
- 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 many choices:
- 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 common.
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 well.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 temporarily
- 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 or not.
- 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 GM’s attention.
- 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 possibilities solidify.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.
- 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 air.
- 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 location
- De-link the choice from an important or relevant NPC or location
- 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 period.
- 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 perspective.
- 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 player perspective.
- 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 present themselves:
One or more PCs are mobile. With this category of choices, you want to consider potential modes of travel available to the PCs:
- 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 reasons.
- 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 pretty open:
- 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 possibilities!
- 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 fleeing.
- 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- game.
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 be welcomed.
- 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 they did?
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 about.
- 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 PCs.
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: http://store.bioware.com
Christmas Ad Special
Christmas soon approaches and I have a few ad spots still left to fill in upcoming ezine issues. I’d like to offer a reduced ad rate in order to fill the spots quickly so I can focus again on zine writing and editing.
If you’re interested in advertising your RPG-related products or services to 13,600 gamers, drop me a note [email protected] to find out the special rate and details.
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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 areas.
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 D&D!Get some model paint and a small knife and color them however you need them.
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