Choice is an incredibly important part of RPGs, and how its handled can tell you a lot about the game and its priorities. But choice is also a tricky widget, one of those things that looks simple on the surface, but offers great complexity as you delve in deeper.

For example, there are different kinds of choices. One model I’m fond of it to look at the bulk of choices as existing on two axes.

The first is whether or not the choice is real. A real choice can be a little bit difficult to define in the context of an RPG because, on some level, it’s all fiction. Still, the idea is this: a choice which has an impact on the fiction (that is to say, it causes a change). Now, for this to make sense you need to buy into the idea that the idea of the game has some concrete reality, and not everyone is on board with this idea, but let’s just roll with it for the time being.

This question comes up a lot in discussion of stories in games. In a game where the plot finds the players, you can often end up with false choices. For example, the players may be presented with a map with numerous destinations and may apparently choose from any of them in their hunt for the MacGuffin. In some games, the next clue the players need will be in whichever destination they choose.[2] This works out nicely for the ebb and flow of play, but it also means the player’s choice didn’t actually have any impact on the game.

The counterpoint is pretty obvious – player choices that direct play or impact the setting. These are the bread and butter of solid tactical and resource management play – action is taken, it has consequences, those consequences are responded to with further action.

This is a good division, but to really give it context, how to make it so hinges on the second axis, meaning.

Meaningful choices are ones where the players have a personal investment in the outcome. Ideally, this is derived from their investment in the game and its elements, but the source is of secondary importance. Players may make any number of choices for their character, but some of them are simply trivial, like what they had for breakfast. They might be colorful or entertaining but, the player doesn’t have an emotional investment in the outcome. A choice that affects things that are important to the player is going to carry more weight, but pinnign that down can me rough.

This is where the axes start helping. The easy assumption is that meaningful choices just needs to be about something important, but that overlooks something critical. See, no matter how high the stakes are, they only matter if the choice is not obvious (which is to say, that there’s a real choice). If the choice is between saving 100 and 1000 lives, it has no weight because, however important those lives may be, the choice is obvious. Even when you sweeten the pot and, say, put loved ones in the 100 that can still fall flat in the kind of game that rewards “right” decisions.

Because of this, meaningful choices can’t be strictly utilitarian, cost-benefit analysis stuff. If everything important in the equation can be boiled down to math[3] then the choice is not made, it’s discovered via calculation. This can be a satisfying process, but it scratches a very different itch.

And that leads to the other end of the axis – sometimes you don’t want to be getting squishy stuff all over your wargame. Tactical decisions and resource management are routes to fun, and if you’re looking to capture that particular kind of play, adding in emotional meaning to the game is going to undercut things. Even if one doesn’t want to be in this mode all the time, there are times when you don’t want to have emotional investment in the soldiers in your wargame.[4]

Given all that, I like to view the upper right hand corner as a goal, even if its not always practical. Sure, every choice should be real and meaningful, but every now and again I’m going to want to step towards something real but uncompelling (like a good fight scene for its own sake) or meaningful but perhaps a bit less real (that is to say, something fuzzy and muddled like most human interactionis). Hell, sometimes I want to dip back into the trivial just for the sheer joy of playing through eating my breakfast. But what’s important is that I know my target square. Someone else might have a different target square but still dip into the others based on their own needs.

1 – I uploaded a diagram here, but Google is being weird, so it may never show up, so in its absence, let’s illustrate with a dungeon room with two doors.
In a game with fake, meaningless choices, there’s a monster behind each door which you will fight solely because its a monster. In some cases, one door will be locked in a totally unopenable fashion.

In a game with real, meaningless choices, one door has a monster and the other may have four hours of boredom (or a bathroom, or some other non-monster option) behind it. Whichever door the players choose is the one they’re stuck with.

In a game with fake, meaningful choices, the bad guy that the players REALLY want to fight is behind whichever door they open first.

In a game with real, meaningful choices, the guy they hate is behind one door, but Aunt May’s medicine is behind the other one.

2 – One alternate version of this is that whatever choice the players make, they will still end up in the same place due to events the GM brings to bear. Net result is pretty much the same.

3 – Obscuring information is the common way to address this, so that there’s math, but you don’t know what it is, so you have to guess, and in guessing you theoretically make it a softer decision.

4 – Much the same way that you don’t necessarily want to bust out a social combat system every time you have a scene with a loved one.

7 thoughts on “Choice

  1. Mike

    To get philosophical here, does it matter if your choice is only perceived? For instance in the two doors case, if the GM plans on the fun part being behind whatever door your open, and you choose the left one and have no way of knowing the GM’s intent, would you feel any different than if you had picked the fun door in the first place?

    I only bring this up because this strategy is often toted as a way to keep the story moving and players engaged without having to do a lot of prep.

    I can see it being an issue if it feels forced or if the players left the dungeon, went to the blacksmith shop, and upon entering it was the same room as it would have been behind that door. That would feel unnatural and be a dead giveway. But if you never found out…

  2. Rob Donoghue

    @mike There is a definite matter of taste here. Some people find it unappealing no matter what the reason. Other people point out that if EVERY choice is meaningless, then why bother in the first place? Similarly, some people think you can always fool your players, and others think players have x-ray eyes that see through the smallest deceit.

    Personally, I’m in favor of it when necessary, but I also feel there are techniques and best practices to do it well, and some of them are hard because they are, at their heart, social engineering, something not every game group is comfortable with. But they’re skills worth learning and, at least in my experience, the willingness to at least keep these tools on hand makes for a better experience with a broader range of games and gamers.

  3. Reverance Pavane

    This is why I feel it is very important for games to have an end, which features a resolution. This is not so much a finale where the players triumph, but rather what Campbell referred to as The Return, the last stage of the Hero’s Journey. This is where the treasure rescued from the dragon’s dungeon (which may well be self-realization) is brought out into the light.

    Then again, most of my games begin with the Call to Adventure, so I may be slightly biased, since the Return inevitably means that the character, once unbalanced by events, is now firmly in control of their destiny.

    The standard model of game frequently doesn’t have this moment of reflection or accomplishment, this return to stability. Instead the adventure never ends until the character dies.

    Of course this also means that games tend to be more episodic. Which is itself a good thing, I think, since you can jump a few years into the future and have the players see the consequences of their actions (usually in what they built). Suddenly other concerns become important (such as finding a wife and having descendants, or otherwise achieving immortality).

  4. Reverance Pavane

    If you arrive at the point when the character can tell the story of their adventures, I think you’ve managed to get to the quadrant you desire.

    It’s not so much the ability to tell the story during play, but rather the ability of the character to tell a great story of what happened afterwards.

    Which includes offering libations to fallen friends, because if you don’t include risk, the heroics become as meaningless as falling from an infected arrow wound, or freezing to death trapped in a cave in the mountains.

  5. Mel

    False choice vs real choice? Sometimes switching the focus of a choice from “what do you choose” to “why do you choose it” can be fruitful.

    In a MUSH medium (where there’s way more focus on storygaming, less on tactical play) I provided a player with 2 npcs in combat, and he had to decide which one to help. I hadn’t really assigned roles to those npcs til he started interacting with them — I was more interested in WHY he picked the one to ally with that he did, so I didn’t have a “right” choice ahead of time.

    In Burning Wheel, however, I would have pre-burned each character and given them goals of their own, which would not have allowed me to invite so much participation/story building from the player I was working with.

    Coming to each of the games, I would pre-load different expectations. I’d be looking for different markers in each that a choice was “important”. In game a, it would be about “how awesome did that scene just feel?”. In game b, it would be about “wait a minute, did this actually tie in to my beliefs, i.e a choice I’m inherently invested in?”.

  6. Paul Tevis

    A few years ago, at GTS, I somehow ended up having dinner with (among other people) Jonathan Tweet. As dinner wore on, Jonathan started asking us about gaming. At one point, he turned to me and said, “What do you want out an RPG?” In a moment of terrible lucidity, I replied, “Real, meaningful choices.”

    Now I know where I got that answer: I stole it from the future.


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