It’s A Bomb

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1101

Here’s a great tip I read the other day:

For character actions to be significant and purposeful, players need information about the possible consequences of their actions.

I don’t know if there’s already an RPG design term for this, but in past Musings I’ve mentioned this as being part of Stakes.

You want encounters to have Stakes to make the story dramatic.

The bigger the Stakes, the bigger the dramatic potential.

For example, imagine there’s a green wire, a red wire, and a black wire. All three go into a wall. You can’t see behind the wall. What do you do?

Not much drama there, right.

Could be a disabled light switch, alarm, or secret panel button.

But tweak the situation so the wires lead to a bomb players can see. And there’s a timer with 10 seconds left players can see.

Due to tropes, we know we’re supposed to choose a wire to cut.

We know if the party cuts the wrong wire, or chooses no action, the bomb explodes. Clear consequences. Now we’ve got Stakes, and therefore drama, and therefore enough context for players to see the game here.

However, even small decisions become a game once players know possible outcomes in advance.

For example, I was reading a module two nights ago about an elf tomb. There’s a pit trip at the tomb entrance. With my Adventure Designer hat on, I saw what was supposed to happen. Forget to check for traps, or fail the check, and the trap gets sprung.

Other than the “we’re in a dungeon” context, however, it’s a pretty boring design. It’s like getting a random shock. Interesting the first time. Not so much again (unless you are the audience, haha).

What fun is it to make blind decisions all the time? Might as well just roll a coin at every intersection and hope for the direction with good gameplay.

The tip gives us two clear axioms for great GMing:

  1. Give players details about choices on the table, including potential consequences.
  2. Never provide certainty of outcome.

Next time you present your group with a choice, add details and enough context so they can guess at the potential consequences.

When you hide bombs behind walls players can’t tell it’s a threat. Make it clear it’s a bomb.