Player Choices

When playing a role playing game, the idea that players should not be Railroaded is recognized as an almost universal truism. The problem with this truism is that its in the negative. It tells you what not to do.

What follows is a set of tools you can use to avoid railroading that are simple and intuitive. They may even help to start interesting stories for your games. Simply stated, they are broad questions to start off with. They allow the players to select a path to travel down and give the Game Master a rough structure to build an adventure from. 

One thing to consider while asking players to make choices is how often are you asking and how complex are the choices. If you ask complicated questions very often, the players will feel overwhelmed and probably not enjoy the process. The more complex or long term the choice, you’ll need to give more time to make that decision.

What choices do the players have to make? Is there a limited set? These questions are very common in adventure games. This list is intended to make this part of the process a little more conscious and in that way allow a GM to inspect their own game structure.

Is this reward worth the risk?

Which is more valuable, this or that? Tradeoff

Which is more costly, this or that?

What is more valuable a reward now or a bigger reward later?

What are you willing to sacrifice for a goal?

How can this be survived?

What method should be used to reach a goal? (aka which way should we go?)

How to express yourself?

These questions are almost never asked directly. It’s best if the question is implied by events the characters encounter. 

While there are plenty of ways you could use these questions, let’s look at several methods.

  1. Select a question you want the players to grapple with for each scene of your game. When thinking about the next scene the characters will be in, pick one question that you think will present intriguing answers. What are the consequences of either choice? If the answer to one of these questions would change the overall course of the game, try to put it at the end of the game.
  2. Select three questions that will come up in the next game. They can come up whenever it’s appropriate but it’s probably a good idea to give them to the players one at a time. They could be presented in a set order or each question could be linked to a place or person.
  3. Select a question that the next adventure is designed around. It could be asked at the beginning of the session and the implications of the player’s choice is explored throughout the game or the game may build up to the choice.

Let’s take a more in depth look at each of the questions and give some ideas about how to integrate them.

Is this reward worth the risk?

This is a subset of “Which is better, this or that?” which most questions are going to be. In this case, the full question would be “Which is better, taking this risk and possibly getting a stated or imagined reward or avoiding the risk and not getting the reward?”

This is probably the question players are most often asked at the beginning of taking up a job or quest. If you’re looking to inject some novelty into games, this could be a question to avoid. That said, it’s not a bad question. There’s an enormous amount of utility in it.

“Should we delve this dungeon? There’s supposed to be riches down there.” is the starting point for many adventures. In this case, it’s a question that is sometimes answered before the players even make their characters as that is the setting of the game. It’s assumed that if you have a character in the game, they’ve asked themselves that question and decided to go with the risk.

In sandbox games, the players are implicitly asked this question whenever they explore a new section of the map. They might stay in an area and try to extract what they can from what’s available. This often has some challenge associated with it which they will risk.

A twist on this question comes up when the players have an obligation to take on tasks. For example if they are part of an organizing group like a military or police force, they are assigned tasks. The question then becomes “Is avoiding risk worth the penalty?” The reward here is to keep your job and/or good standing with an organization. The risk is any hazards the task requires along with what the organization can do to you if you don’t do your job.

Which is more valuable, this or that?

This question could be interpreted very broadly, so broadly in fact that it loses any differentiation from other questions. For the purposes of this list, we’ll constrain it’s interpretation to mean choosing between rewards.

For this question to have any meaning, the two (or more) offered rewards have to be mutually exclusive, meaning that you can’t have one and then go get the other.

For an example: Which is more valuable, saying up and watching youtube videos until late at night or going to bed early, getting a good night sleep and making your significant other happy with you?

You can do one or the other but not both. There is a condition that prevents the players from just saying “Yes please” to both.

The easiest constraining factor to imagine for these situations is time. (And that only works if the setting doesn’t have time travel or super speed.) That’s because time is a resource that gets used up. So realistically, this question is akin to “What would you rather spend your X on?” with X being a finite resource.

Another way to bring this kind of choice out is to have some kind of a door close when the other choice is achieved.

“When you pull the sword from the stone you’re made king, you cannot go back to the quiet anonymous life you once enjoyed.”

Building an impenetrable door is hard though. A determined player may quickly find a loophole and claim both prizes. This might not be all that bad, after all, the players are showing initiative and thinking ability. Maybe they deserve both? It would be bad though if getting both destroys the tension in the story and makes play boring.

In most cases, this kind of choice is interesting when the types of rewards reflect different values because they reveal something about the Player Character. A choice between two +1 swords is not interesting. A choice between protecting a relationship or gaining power says something.

A twist on this would be to only hint that the choices are exclusive. The question of “Can we do both?” can be very exciting and even get the milage of having the PCs try for both only to find their fears confirmed. As a warning, it’s best to not spend too much of the player’s time trying to achieve both or they’ll just get annoyed. A quick attempt is better if that’s the way you want to go.

Which is more costly, this or that?

This is similar to the the question “Which is more valuable, this or that?” but instead of choosing between two rewards, the choice is between two penalties. 

This choice is usually the most palatable in the middle of a story as a second act. It is the basic idea of being “between a rock and a hard place.”

This question structures itself easily because the players will want to avoid as many of the penalties as possible. 

In one form of this question the two penalties are rushing toward the characters. The primary structure that the GM must build has to do with making the paths to avoid facing both penalties obvious but each path leads straight through one of the dangers.

For example, the PCs are being pursued by the king’s guard and the only way to avoid them is to hide out by begging the forgiveness of a crime lord that they’ve had bad dealings with.

Another way this can be structured is for a player character goal to be situated behind a barrier and the penalties are the easiest path to get to the goal. 

Do you go through the Gap of Rohan or through the Mines of Moria?

Impenetrable barriers are tough things to create and the players may figure out a way straight through one without paying the penalty. If they do so, is it really that bad? Maybe they deserve to skip through the danger for being so clever. Maybe they could face a less daunting penalty they didn’t expect because of their plan, but whenever possible, it’s best to reward good thinking.

A twist on this is that one or both of the penalties may be illusory. Maybe it’s only rumored that the king’s guard is hunting down the characters. This is usually an interesting twist when both options seem unsurmountable. Tension rises while the players think that impending doom is knocking on their door only to find out they’ve been running from nothing. Going to the crime lord might go badly, but the characters are given a chance to get away finding no shelter. They then panic thinking themselves about to die when… nothing happens. Maybe the crime lord planted the rumor? Maybe the rumor was planted by a weaker rival?

What is more valuable a reward now or a bigger reward later

This choice balances instant with delayed gratification. This choice shares a lot of ground with “Which is more valuable, this or that?” but is specific in that the choice is about time and value. 

With the other question, it’s not clear which reward is more valuable until the players choose one. In this case the immediate reward is expressly less valuable.

The need to prevent the players from claiming both prizes still applies. Since they are time shifted, it’s much harder to frame this choice as an issue of not enough time.

In most cases, this choice will be presented by a character who can give one reward or the other for deeds done. It could also be a matter of something that needs time to progressively improve and drawing on it too early means it does not reach its full potential.

A twist on this could be that the reward gets greater for a while, but if left too long the reward will diminish. The idea here being the idea of fruit on a tree. If picked too early, it’s not ripe, if not picked soon enough it drops off the tree and rots.

Another twist on this is the idea of an investment where time is not the only requirement, but another resource is also required that would have been useful in other ways had it not been set aside.

What are you willing to sacrifice for a goal?

This is an open ended question and it raises some problems of how to ask it of your players. Simply telling your players “You must give up x to achieve your goals” is not a question. The goal here is to extract a cost, but that cost is determined by the players.

This is a traditional structure in storytelling where the author decides that their characters need to feel some pain before reaching a goal. Without the pain, the goal has little emotional value. The same thing can be true of in game goals but the GM can’t as easily set the stakes for what ought to be sacrificed.

So how can you set this question up? If the goal is to marry into the royal family, what is a proper sacrifice? The players might offer money. In sufficient quantities that could work. What if they offered up their identity? Can that work? I sort of does in a bunch of classic stories. Think Aladdin for example, although he’s also sacrificing a wish. What if they offer up their best friend? That’s not going to be so straight forward but it could work given the right circumstances.

Marrying into a royal family is probably going to be a long term goal. Shorter term goals can work the same way. What if the goal is information? You can offer money to gather information. You could go undercover to sacrifice your identity and do some hard work tailing people and making contacts. You might even sacrifice a friendship (somehow).

It helps to have an idea of both the size of the goal and some types of sacrifices that might make the goal attainable. It’s also important to have an open mind to solutions the players may present.

Twists on this question might be that someone suggests a sacrifice that benefits themselves. They have the power to make the goal happen in formality but often the sacrifice is used to nullify the true intent of the goal. Achieving the goal in the true sense now requires defeating the trickster.

How can this be survived?

This is a very open question that often the GM might not know the answer to. Usually a dangerous situation is presented and the players have some warning that it’s coming. This does not have to be a physical danger, it can be financial, emotional or social. In most cases it should be obvious that this danger cannot be opposed directly, that doing so will cause ruin.

The question is answered with a plan made by the players. The plan does not need to defeat the danger, only prevent the defeat of the Player Characters. Plans may take the form of running away, parlaying an aggressor, hiding out until the coast is clear, feigning an attack to buy time, or any number of tactics.

When asking this question, it’s best to not set a single method of survival. It could be useful to have a few rough ideas of how to survive so you have thoughts on how to structure any tests that come up. 

Whatever the actual plan is, it’s the GM’s job to attempt to make it viable. Enabling a plan too far would however invalidate the question so it’s fair to set up costs for the plan and if the characters are able to discern those costs, warn of them.

A twist on this is if the goal is to trap the characters. This changes the stakes and it may be a viable plan to simply allow themselves to be captured.

What method should be used to reach a goal?

This question is all about choosing a path to get to a desired destination. This includes tactical choices like turtling or rushing an enemy.

You set out to find treasure in the underground catacombs. There are several small tunnels that go left and a large tunnel that continues forward. Which way do you go?

Or.

He’s been murdered, that much is certain. How do you want to go about investigating?

There is an obvious intent that the players are going to move toward but there isn’t any one method that is clearly better than any others. This question is useful for getting the players exploring. Along the way, their explorations are likely to bring them into conflict. 

For sandbox games, this question is the one most frequently asked of the players. There is no main path to take, the only thing that gives the characters direction is that there is a goal to reach for.

The primary twist for this question is that while the characters are finding their own path, new goals are presented. This is often in the form of someone asking the characters for help.

How to Express Yourself?

Players want to make the game their own by their expressions. While all the questions are a form of expression, the rest have some kind of goal in mind. In this case the question exists solely for the character to add flavor to their experience.

What color will you paint your race car?

or

Describe how your character looks.

This is often a question that the players start off asking in order to establish their character. If the question establishes a vision for the character early on, it can have a large impact on the direction of game play.

A twist to this question is to make what would seem like a frivolous choice become critically important. The player chose to buy a hat but that style has political meaning to the people in the city and wearing it changes how people view them.

Hypercast

Well I started a new game, surprise, surprise. I’m trying out itch.io as a platform for distribution. At this point, I’m kinda all over so why not?

Hypercast came from the idea that science fiction has this FTL concept called hyperspace, and the characters spend a lot of time in it. What happens in hyperspace though? In some cases there are creatures that live in hyperspace and in others the dimension is really dangerous.

The thought is then, let’s spend time in hyperspace. I’m approaching this from the angle that each trip is a constant fight to stay alive. Light is poisonous to the creatures in the void and without it normal matter starts to fall apart in what’s called Fade.

Here’s the itch.io page.

Talking to Humans

This one’s a little different than what I’ve done here before. I wrote a non-fiction book. What’s even stranger is that it’s a kind of self help book for those of us that have difficulty relating to others. It walks through different goals for interaction, identifying effective strategies and warning of pitfalls. It’s a big mass of concepts that I’ve collected and tested.

It runs just over 200 pages on a novel size paperback with generously sized print. If I keep editing and expanding ideas it may end up more.

It also features an off kilter narrator that may or may not really understand humans. They may not even be human themselves.

Right now it’s in the editing phase. It needs polish to make the information clearly understandable. It’s kind of a herky jerky rollercoaster ride right now, but I almost like it better that way. I’ve had some readers with positive feedback so far, but of course I could always use more.

Let’s see where this takes us.

Hi tech memory

I had a strange thought this morning for a feature of a high tech world. What if materials in a high tech setting had a way of remembering things? What kind of things? That’s where this gets interesting.

The initial thought was a material that knows who owns it and who owned it in the past. Basically a blockchain stamp that records a trail of ownership. The idea being that there are molecular arrangements that act as a watermark. Some device would be used to brand the memory into the material. The information is read externally, possibly via x-ray. This is what I’m going to call Memory 1 material.

Memory 2 material can form it’s own memories but it’s not intelligent. This means that the material only “remembers” what it’s told to remember. Some kind of nanotech material that can be written to is dispersed in the material and can re-write itself. There’s a pathway to communicating with the material so that information can be encoded. That pathway could be any number of things like a laser or radio waves or something more exotic if you don’t want people to alter it’s memory.

Memory 3 material has external senses and can remember events that happen to it. These senses may be very limited to strain, temperature and possibly chemical detection. Each time there’s a change, the material remembers it.

Memory 4 is when a material can communicate with other local objects to gather data about what’s going on with it. The paint talks to the metal it’s on and they share events.

Memory 5 materials are intelligent and can make choices about what is important or unusual. Instead of simply collecting events, these materials look for outliers and significant patterns to record from the materials and devices around them.

Memory 6 starts to display sentience. It is aware of itself, the things around it and the people (possibly chemical signatures) around it. It gathers data from materials and can actively communicate with devices designed to talk to it.

Memory 7 displays a distinct personality. It has preferences of it’s own and has a concept of how it wants to be used and manipulated.

Station Keepers Update

I ran a little tiny kickstarter to make a game in a month. The kickstarter funded and the game Station Keepers was made. It’s a dungeon crawl on a freaky space station.

It has an odd mechanic to it in that you pay to succeed in passing through elements of the station. Only it’s way to specific in some ways on how that happens and not specific enough in others. I got kind good at running it even but it left a machine oil taste in my mouth.

I was trying really hard to keep the moving parts of the machine to an absolute minimum. What that ended up doing was severely limiting what the players could actually do. That’s what really needs to be fixed and I have a vague idea of what needs to happen to open up player choice.

I need to find some way to let the player’s exploration effect the game. The trick is that the station is spontaneously generated so it’s not like a GM is sitting there, trying to figure out how all this works. It’s possible that I could do a series of random tables and prompts for secrets in each room but there’s already a lot of tables to go through. There’s also an element of backstabbing the other characters and I have the idea that a player could offer a “bounty” by describing a secret in the room that their character discovers and that exempts them from some of the difficulty but locks in the difficulty for the other characters. Something like a -5 to the difficulty for your character when you describe a danger and you explain how you avoid it but you don’t share that detail with the others.

The other thing that needed to get fixed was what the consequence of failure means. You bid to try and overcome challenges, paying for your bid with bad things that happen to you. and after a few tries, if you don’t bid high enough, you fail. Only failure was kind of meh.

So my new thought is to ask three times what the player will give and then, if they don’t succeed, the GM gets to tell them what is taken from them. There should be rules for how much can be taken and I have the idea should be things that will actually impact the character and the player. Things like a worsening plague that’s infecting them, losing the ability to speak, losing a limb, losing a sense. Major effects. I think a list to roll or choose from would fit with the existing game well.

It’s been a while since I worked on this project and maybe it’s overdue for a revamp.

Flaws?

I had a thought this morning. What if your highest stats were your flaws?

What if, when you made a mistake, it was because you over relied on your strength? For example, someone who’s smart but thinks they’re a genius. Or someone that is determined but sticks too long to a plan that isn’t working.

The idea is to paint the character in a way that could range from cartoonish to deeply dysfunctional. The goal is to explain failure with a theme that builds who the character is or maybe wants to be.

I think the Energy System could be used to do that. I wonder if it would resonate with players? If built right, it could deliver a lot of laughs.

Always Starting

The last few years have been rough. They’ve taken a lot out of me and I often wonder if I’ll get back to where I was before them. I don’t even feel like I’m the same core person I was before and that’s deeply disturbing because for most of my life I’ve had a concept of myself that I aspired to. It’s not that I couldn’t aspire to that person anymore, it’s just that I don’t know if I can remember him.

That’s the context. What I want to write about is the stress that has hurt my ability to work on projects. I definitely don’t want to give up on them but I’m struggling. The side effect of that struggling is I keep coming up with new projects to start and not finishing anything.

The reason is it’s easier to conceptualize an idea than to pick one back up. Why? because I have to essentially load the current state of a project into memory, to manipulate it and move forward. If I’m uninterrupted, this feels like a flow state and it’s pleasurable. Unfortunately that takes time and effort. I have time. That’s not the issue. I spend my time watching youtube videos on science, making and literature. I’m not sad that I’ve learned a lot of interesting things but it isn’t my goal.

What I don’t have is the emotional energy to discipline myself and focus. I worry that this might be a permanent state. I don’t think it has to be. If I were to force myself to work on a project and finish it, I think I could get my focus back. So why haven’t I?

Finishing games or stories takes a good deal of concentration. Being able to do that concentrative meditative work, I feel, makes me sharper. It also takes effort and big chunk of my effort, my mental energy has been going into averting disasters. My creative pursuits have rightly taken a back seat.

I’m in a relatively calmer place right now but I’m not sure when the next crisis will pop up. Actually I’m in the middle of one right now. I’ve sold my house and the house we were going to move to was snatched out from under us by another buyer with better connections and probably more money. Even with that going on, things have improved for the moment.

The problem is I’m not sure if the other fires are fully out. They could come roaring back and that has me hopping back and fourth between thoughts. I’m not sure I should take my eye off them right now. Staying in that fight or flight mode trains me to be vigilant but prevents me from thinking deeply and that bothers me greatly. I want to be able to think deeply.

So here’s to hoping things keep calming down and the fires are out. I hope I’m able to settle down and rebuild the habits that get me to finish projects. That’s not an empty hope, I am still motivated to get them done, I’m just hedging my bets at the moment. The longer I stay in this mode, the more it’s going to take to get back to where I was, so I’m eager to find a way.

Narrative Lego

Ken Levine gives an interesting talk about building video games with modular narrative. There are a number of games made by Ambrosia software that already did what he’s talking about (see the Escape Velocity series) but possibly in a less chaotic way. What I do find interesting is some of the terms that he uses because language is one way to build structure.

Since I mainly use the table top format for games, a lot of what is talked about here is both too complex and not sophisticated enough for those needs. What I do find useful is his structure of “Stars” and “Passions”.

Game Masters have been putting Stars in their games for a long time. These are NPCs that can have a material effect on the players. Specifically, they’re ones the players can form one to one relationships with. None of that is functionally new. Giving the process a name is useful though, because now I can tell a new GM “Put a few Stars in each setting.”

There are tons of RPGs that effectively have “Stars” in them and they build relationship trees for them etc. The simple term with a definition is enough to make this useful.

Passions, by itself are also nothing new. Again, it’s the definition of what a passion is that is interesting. Passions are motivations the Star has that is tied to what the player will do. Motivation is old hat for RPGs so it’s not that big a deal but the narrowing of what motivations are relevant that makes the term interesting. I don’t really like the term “Passions” but it serves a purpose well enough.

I think one way to use this in a tabletop setting is, instead of status bars and winning points on those bars, the players get labeled different things by performing distinct actions that relate to the Passions. Labels like “trustworthy” or “helpful” can be written below the Star’s stat sheet and tracked.

That’s all for now, I just thought there were some useful distinctions made.