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?


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?


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.

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.

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.


I’d like to make things that help friends communicate with each other who they truly are. There are plenty of barriers to authentic communication. Trying to break down those barriers so you can earn trust is hard work. I believe those barriers can be circumvented when we “play” and that’s what I want to use to help people express themselves to their friends.

Working On Station Keepers

Hey, I can finally say I’ve run a successful Kickstarter! Station Keepers is a go and I’m furiously working on it. The first phase of getting a functional structure is in place and now I’m working on infusing it with some more meaning. Not that I’m trying to shoehorn meaning into it, but each design speaks in it’s own voice. Station Keepers has a specific voice and I’m trying to find it. Maybe I have my metaphor, but I’ll have to see if I can make it work.

Building a Community

These are questions useful for world building and planning campaigns based on different sized communities.

Food – Plant
Where does the community get their grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and fruit?
Locally grown – Circle all that apply
All, Staples, Supplemental, Luxuries

Imported – Circle all that apply
All, Staples, Supplemental, Luxuries

Does the community grow produce for other communities? Yes, No

Where do they export to?

Food – Animal
Does the community eat animal products? Yes, No

Circle the activities the community takes part in for food and sport. Fish, Hunt, Trap

Are domestic animals farm raised?

Locally Raised – Circle all that applies
All, Staples, Supplemental, Luxuries

Imported – Circle all that applies
All, Staples, Supplemental, Luxuries

Are there large herds? Yes, No

Do families keep a few animals for food? Yes, No

Does the community export animals? Yes, No

Do they host hunters from other communities? Yes, No

Do they host fishermen from other communities? Yes, No

Food Service
Is there a market or restaurants? Yes, No

Are these services for the local population or to accommodate travelers? Local, Travelers

Does the community have breweries wineries or distilleries? Breweries, Wineries, Distilleries

Are these commercial businesses or operated by individuals?

Fuel – Electrical
Does this community have access to electrical power? Yes, No

If so, how widespread is it’s distribution? Central source, Distributed source, Distribution network

Why do people receive electrical power? They pay money, It is considered a right, By title position or rank

Generating electricity requires powerplants and possibly electrical transmission equipment.

Is water, wind, steam engine, or some relic the source of electrical power? Water, Wind, Solar, Steam, Other

Where does the community get the fuel for electricity?

Fuel – Chemical
What fuels are used?
Wood, Coal, Gas, Oil, Animal dung Other

How do people cook their food?

Do people control their home’s temperature, how?

Do they use fuel from local sources? Yes, No

Do they import fuel? Yes, No

How abundant is the supply?

What machinery, equipment and jobs are needed to provide fuel?

Raw Materials
Does the community harvest trees for building materials?

Do they grow crops or raise animals for making thread?

Do they have clay in their soil for making bricks or tiles?

Do they mine for metal

Are raw materials imported? From where?

Refined Materials
Does the community refine raw materials?

Circle how they refine materials
Lumber mill, Weavers for textiles, Smelting refinery, Cement kilns, Brickworks, Chemical plant, Oil refinery

If the community does not have these facilities themselves, where can materials be obtained from?

How often can the materials be acquired?

Does the community produce it’s own tools?

How do they make tools? Circle all that apply.
Carpenter, Blacksmith, Foundry, Machinist

Do they import tools? From where?

How hard is it to obtain tools?

Communities will need a source of clothing. Does the community make their own?

If so, for small towns they may have tailors or for large cities, garment factories. However in very small communities a family member may make clothing for each household.

Where does the community get their textiles? Where do they get the tools for making clothing come from? At it’s simplest this could be sowing needles.

If the community does not make their own clothing, where does it come from?

The vast majority of communities make use of some kind of shelter. The more the society produces as product, the more elaborate their homes are.

Who makes the shelters the community uses? Does a family make their own? Are their skilled individuals that build shelters? Is there an industry for making shelters?

Where do the refined materials and tools for shelters come from?

How do people move themselves and goods around?

If they use animals, which animals are used and for what purposes?

Are the animals used as mounts or do they pull carts or wagons?

Who makes the gear for harnessing animals?

Who makes the carts if they are used?

Does the community use powered transportation?

Where do the vehicles come from? Who maintains them?

Does the community use water travel? Are there special hazards in doing so?

Who makes the boats or ships?

Are there different tiers of prestige linked to methods of transport?

How is law and order maintained?

How does the community ward off attacks from the outside?

Is there a central figure that handles security or are there many people that get involved in security decisions?

In small close knit communities, law and order may be kept socially, where each individual upholds the group’s ethics.

Larger towns, especially those with travelers going through it may need someone empowered to enforce law like a sheriff or chief. In the case of external attack, the enforcer is likely to select able individuals to aid them in defense.

Cities require a network of enforcers such as a military or police force. In many cases, the role of maintaining law and external defense are different specialized roles but not always.

Does the community make aggressive attacks on others?

If so, are the attacks carried out by untrained civilians or a trained, dedicated military?

Why would the community make aggressive actions against others? What could make them change their stance?

Small communities may raid neighbors for resources especially if they are not self sufficient. Often a leader selects and possibly trains individuals to go on raids.

Tribal or territorial conflicts may cause medium sized communities to attack one another. These are usually calculated attacks intended to push back a rival. These conflicts are often carried out by militia that arm themselves.

City states may go to war over trade conflicts philosophical differences or territorial disputes. City states are likely to have militias or their own standing army depending on how centrally controlled they are.

Who does the entertaining in the community?

Are there a few talented people that play music or act?

Is entertainment something that everyone has a part in?

Do travelers have a part in sharing stories from afar?

What kinds of entertainment is common, what kinds are taboo?

Even in small communities information is an important resource. What is the role of gossip in the community?

How much are people involved in news of their community?

Is keeping up on the lives of people encouraged or is it frowned on?

Is there an industry built around information or is it just a hobby?

Is there one or more dedicated spy networks?

Information Distribution
Is there a way of recording and spreading news?

How do people find out about events that happen around them?

World Door Chapter 6 – Answers


“I’m not going anywhere.” I said. “None of that matters if everyone in my family dies in the plague. The one I could have stopped!”

“Mechal, listen, this plague might kill them or the next or the one after that. The only real solution is to end the plagues. You are the only person that can do that.” Ashlyn said.

“How? How am I supposed to go through this door. Don’t you think they had Tows when the village was founded?” I said.

This actually took Ashlyn back a bit she seemed rattled by it.

“I see. You really haven’t thought this through. You just hope it will work.” I taunted.

“You think you’ve got things figured out? Turn off your pet and I’ll tell you what you really are.” Ashlyn said. Continue reading “World Door Chapter 6 – Answers”

Glyph becomes World Door

I’ve been working on a novel that I’ve been calling Glyph. Originally I thought I’d have to tell two separate stories about the world. I resolved the issues I had with telling it in one. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about the title.

It would be more appropriate to call the story World Door.

I’ll be changing the titles to match this.

World Door Chapter 5 – Error


We packed slowly in the morning and started on the trail. We hadn’t gotten far when we spotted the sisters heading towards us. They actually looked worried.

“Ho, sisters.” Thain called.

“Ho.” Janna called back.

They approached us quickly. Something had to be wrong for them to show themselves to us. I thought to run ahead, but my blistered feet would not allow it.

As they got closer Janna stopped and raised her hand in front of her. Ashlyn started to circle.

“Behind you!” Janna said.

I we turned but saw nothing coming up the trail. We all looked back for clarification.

“The tigerwolf!” She yelled.

I tried to laugh but nothing came out. “That’s Melsa!” I called back.

Continue reading “World Door Chapter 5 – Error”