Decisions That Matter
Put simply, for the players to be actual participants in creating the story, their characters must be faced with real decisions that have a significant impact on the story. In many (if not most) games, characters are usually faced with false choices. Ether there's only one obvious answer, or no matter what the character chooses, the GM will railroad the story back to his desired story-line.
Sounds easy, but actually enabling stories in play often feels quite difficult. As I see it, these decisions come in three broad categories: pre-scene decisions, mid-scene decisions and post-scene decisions.
Pre-scene decisions represent all the decisions that the characters make before actually starting a scene. Again, I'm interested in conflict here, not necessarily combat. The characters might be preparing to present their case in court, or perhaps the want to sell the queen's jewels on the black market. Whatever. Pre-scene decisions include all the plans and preparations that the characters make before voluntarily stepping into a potentially difficult situation.
In many games, these are the only real decision a character can make. They are also often the bane of many traditional GMs. After all, the characters often decide to do something unexpected. Instead of hiking through the Dark and Dangerous Forest of Doom, they head south, catch a boat and cruse on up the coast. Meanwhile, the GM, who spent six hours carefully crafting an ambush by half-orc, half-owls, silently grinds his teeth as his blood-pressure skyrockets.
Not surprisingly, many GMs pride themselves at "adapting" to these decisions. Note the quotes. Instead of organically creating new conflicts in response to the player (what I'd consider true adaptation), the GM simply railroads the characters back into his pre-prepared story. In the above example, a sudden storm sinks the characters' ship. As they drag their waterlogged bodies to shore, the party finds itself lost in the Dark and Dangerous Forest of Doom (complete with impatiently waiting orc-owls).
Notice how the GM's reaction robs the characters' decision of any real meaning. No matter what they chose, they ended up ambushed in the forest.
However, railroading is not as simple as it appears. Clearly, blatant and obvious attempts at railroading are bad and should be avoided, but there are some railroading-like behaviors that actually improve the story. Let me explain.
Let's say the GM wants to introduce a new source of conflict. He decides that the Big Nefarious Bad Dude is going to try and kidnap an overly cute 5-year old who lives next door. The players will see the kidnapping in progress, thwart it, and thus get pulled into BNBD's Big Nefarious Plot. In his notebook, he jots down that the kidnapping will happen exactly at midnight tomorrow.
However, the players decide to hang out at a dwarven strip club until 3:00 a.m. Now, some GMs might let the kidnapping happen as scripted. BNBD nabs the girl while the characters are gone. They don't know anything about it. Sure, this avoids railroading--but it also kills the story. The characters never encounter BNBD, and that entire conflict disappears in a puff of smoke. (sure, you might create an acceptable story hook using the post-kidnapping, grief-stricken parents--but, for the sake of this example, lets ignore that option).
As an obvious alternative, just delay the kidnapping until the characters are on their way home. Midnight? 3:00 A.M.? What's the difference?
Is that railroading? Maybe. But I feel that important parts of the story should not happen off-scene. If the characters are going to be the protagonists, they need to be present at most (if not all) important scenes.
Also, I think there's a real difference here. In the D&DFoD example, the characters are forced into the GM's pre-scripted scene. In the BNBD example, the scene is simply delayed until a more-dramatically appropriate time. It could be delayed indefinitely. If the characters left town, the child would be safe until they returned. Indeed, the scene may never happen. However, as soon as an appropriately dramatically moment arrives, the girl gets nabbed.
A less-common form of pre-conflict decision is the old disease vs. cure argument. What do you do when the cure is just as bad as the disease?
Here the characters have a potential solution (or partial solution) to their problems, but it comes at a cost. These decisions usually focus on moral conundrums: a deal with the devil, a ruthless means marginally justified by the ends, or any other variation on this theme.
While I really enjoy throwing moral conundrums at my players, it must be used sparingly. First, it's hard to properly balance the two options. Too often, all the characters will unanimously agree that one course of action is clearly better than the other. The conundrum then degrades from a real decision to a mere frustration.
Ideally, I try to split the party, where some of the characters choose option A, and others want option B. This forces the characters to make a real decision, while also adding a juicy layer of intraparty conflict.
And remember, a continuous stream of moral dilemmas may make the game feel too heavy, or too frustrating. Besides, anything becomes boring when repeated too often.
One last warning. Decisions are good, but don't let the players spend all their time planning. Some players get so wrapped up in making the decision, they never get around to the actual story.
These decisions occur in the middle of scene. They can be incredibly powerful, and lead to strong stories. However, they're the hardest to orchestrate.
For example, the characters could be faced with a lumbering hoard of mind-controlled soccer moms. Do they protect themselves and the other shoppers at the Uptown Mall by grinding the hoard into a slurry of bone and red goo? Or do they try to free the moms from the preternatural domination (a risker but less messy approach).
Mid-scene decisions force the characters to react in real time. They don't have the luxury of sitting back and discussing the issue. The soccer moms are battering their way into the food court, and the characters must make a decision NOW!
Most of the time, these decisions emerge naturally from play. The old "those who fall behind get left behind" conundrum. Two characters are dying, and you only have one potion of healing left. Life's rough that way.
Sometimes, mid-scene decisions occur because the players uncover new information in the middle of a conflict. Any information that changes the nature of the conflict can force the players to make new decisions on-the-fly. Do they continue with their existing plan, or do they change course to either take advantage of a new opportunity or avoid a new obstacle.
Again, it's often hard to tune this new information properly. Often, the correct course of action is clear. In this case, it's really just a twist. Nothing wrong with that. Many excellent stories contain surprises and twists. But, it's not a decision that matters.
While not as common, I think post-conflict decisions could be one of the most effective tools in the GM's toolkit. Like the mid-scene decisions, these decisions are created when the characters gain new information during a scene. Unlike the mid-scene decisions; however, the information does not directly affect the current conflict. Rather, the information will cause the characters to make some decision after the current scene has ended.
Again, a story should progress as follows:
- GM introduces conflict
- Players react to the conflict
- GM reacts to the players' actions by introducing new conflict
- Players react to the new conflict
- Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.
Notice how these decisions fit nicely into that framework.
Also, mid-scene decisions often involve a dramatic moral quandary. The post-scene decisions can be more flexible. Almost any sort of clues create a post-scene decision. A mysterious stranger is spotted lurking in the shadows during the big fight scene. Who is he? Friend? Foe? What can the characters do to find out?
The characters must first interpret the clue, and then they must decide how the clue will impact future actions. Ideally, this will make the characters proactive, driving them to actively seek out more information.
Proactive characters are, by definition, not following the GM's script. They are charting their own course thought the story. And the GM (and by extension, the antagonists) are reacting to the players. This is ideal, but often hard to achieve.
Note that post-scene decisions require multi-layered scenes. A (long) while ago, I suggested that all scenes should do at least two things (here). It's not just a fight. It's not just a clue. It's a clue revealed during a fight (or as the result of a fight).
Finally, pre-scene and post-scene decisions are largely opposite sides of the same coin. Both occur between scenes. As such, the amount of time spent deliberating and plotting should be kept to a minimum (pacing issues are really beyond the scope of this essay, but the bulk of the game time should be spent in actual scenes dealing with real combat). I think the pre- and post-scene decisions are subtly different, however.
Pre-scene decisions focus on the upcoming scene. The decision focuses on how the characters will achieve some goal. Post-scene decisions focus on what the characters will do with a new piece of information. Of course, once the characters address the what-question, they will naturally turn to the how-question.
In many ways, the transition from post-scene to pre-scene decisions represents a switch from strategic to tactical planning. Obviously, strategic decisions will have a larger impact on the game. Post-scene decisions therefore matter more than pre-scene decisions (at least, according to my definitions).
But, tactical decisions are important too. They are often vital for setting the story's tone or atmosphere. Do the characters sneak in, or do they kick in the front door? Either way, they will likely rescue the princess. But you end up with two, very different stories.
Well, that's the basics. There are definitely some rough edges on this idea. As always, let me know what you think.