Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Gamer's Choice

I'm on my second playthrough of Dragon Age 2, and I'm trying to make it end differently than it did my first time, because while I "won" the game, I was unhappy with many of the events surrounding the endgame, and I have a very strong sense that at least some of it is a result of choices made along the way. There's a huge, spoiler-laden post coming as a result of this when I finish (whether I succeed or not, because the experience has been fascinating to me) but one curious thing struck me last night while playing.

One advantage of forcing conversations down trees in a video game is that it can force the player to make a choice. There are only so many options, and the game doesn't proceed unless you pick one. This can be heavy handed or annoying, but if well constructed, it can work pretty well. The problem, of course, is that this doesn't really work on the tabletop. You can't narrow down choices that way, so the idea doesn't really transfer.

Or does it?

Bioware did a very good job of constructing their menus, and they did something that was sufficiently subtle that I missed it the first time through. In almost every situation where they offer a hard choice (such as supporting one person over another), they almost always offer the Gamer's Option, which is the non-answer that avoids locking you down and leaves you with the maximum range of options available. In a classic play sense, this is the "smart" choice, because by the logic of gameplay (as opposed to the logic of the game) it is most likely to optimize your outcome.

There's a less subtle version of this that's common in RPGs that is often shorthanded as "always choose 1", in large part because of how Bioware has constructed these conversation trees in older games. Option 1 is usually the nice or good option, and you can usually successfully make it all the way through a game by rarely choosing anything else. It's pretty clear in play that DA2 subverts that - all good choices all the time has consequences too, some of them quite bad - but what was less clear to me is that they also seem to have subverted the gamer's choice. The optimal-seeming, low pain, don't offend anyone path may be there, but it is not necessarily the path to victory. On this playthrough, I'm taking more risks and choosing more sides, and I've been seeing good results.

I'm hopeful that it may pay off in the end. Maybe it won't, though kudos to Bioware for making me try. However it goes, I'm taking this lesson to heart.

In my experience at least, the problem with presenting players with choices has never been the lack of an explicit conversation tree. I don't want that kind of ham-fisted force. For me, the question is usually what to do if they don't engage. The instinct is to push the choice harder and harder, but that's counterproductive.

If you value hard choices at the tabletop, then it's worth explicitly planning for "none of the above." Give it meaning, but allow things to proceed if players choose that course. The goal is to move away from pushing the choice hard and creating a "You didn't choose and I will punish you!" response in favor of a "failing to step up does not go unnoticed, and your protections as a protagonist don't mean that because you don't choose, nothing happens" sort of approach. Just as it's important to put effort into offering good, meaningful choices, it's worth taking some time to give them good, meaningful context, so that a non-choice carries weight too.

Remember that a choice is also an opportunity. Maybe an opportunity for something good, maybe an opportunity to prevent something worse. Either way, forgoing the choice is also forgoing the opportunity.

A GM can absolutely use this as a carrot or a stick in her game, but I think it's more important to use it as an element of setting continuity. The choice comes and goes, and things happen as a result of it - what those things are should be impacted by the choice (or lack thereof), but whatever the choice, things will happen.

With this in mind, it's worth making sure there's some pressure driving the choice (or non-choice). With a few exceptions, leaving choices available indefinitely to players is a pretty boring path, since the absence of pressure removes any need to do anything but push the decision off as long as possible until it is either irrelevant, or a truly optimal route is discovered.

This, by the way, is something you can do at the tabletop much more effectively than video games. The nature of electronic play means that it's often easy to put off choices for a long time while you run around and do sidequests, unlock secrets and whatnot. You have many more tools available for pressure and consequence, and it would be a shame not to use them.


  1. This is pretty relevant to the game I'm running now. The players have spent some time trying to gather allies without committing to anything, and I've been wondering how to push them to make a choice and move on. After reading this, I'm pretty sure I'll do it by letting them know that the villain's plans are moving ahead in the meantime.

  2. As I don't currently have the context of playing DA2, I'm a little unclear on how you'd generalize this approach to plotlines in a game. Examples?

  3. Easy peasy. Consider any hard choice in any game. The Elves and Dwarves both want to control the sugarpie trade, and they want your support. It's getting violent, and your support could tip the balance.

    Assuming your players care (and let's take that as a given) they an either support the elves, support the Dwarves, or try to find some middle ground for fear of offending either side. Options 1 and 2 are easy, but option #3 is a mess, and problematically, will probably be the one players gravitate towords, because solving problems is less challenging than making hard choices.

    So, in this case, the problem is that the sugarpie harvest is coming due. If either side takes control, then they'll have enough people to do it, but if they don't. it's a problem. Either they'll be wasting their resources fighting each other, and the harvest will be largely wasted (driving up prices, causing sad children everywhere) or they'll split the harvest and both sides will over-harvest to make up for their loss, resulting in plummeting prices and devastating the sugarpie fields for the next 10 years. That is to say, even if the players do the "Good game decision" thing of brokering peace, every suffers more than if they'd just picked a side.

    So there it is. Players can take a side and take their lumps, or they can waffle, and face the consequences of that. This might be a slightly mean and silly example, but it can apply to any meaningful choice.

    -Rob D.

  4. You can also remember that a little paranoia goes a long way when you reach these decision points. It can be very difficult to refuse an offer to side with a group without actually offending and alienating them to some degree. Then you usually have to work twice as hard to get back into their good graces, whereupon you reach the same decision point you avoided the first time. Or it may not be offered again at all, and all sides might close ranks against the outsiders.

    And the longer you attempt to keep your options open, the more isolated (and inconsequential) you will be. Just ask Pastor Martin Niemöller.

    [There are means of walking a middle path without antagonising anyone, but they usually work by avoiding reaching the decision point. An offer never refused never offends.]

  5. Please post the result prior to spoilers... I haven't played through yet, but could be curious to know if your "pick a side, be risky!" paid off in the way you're hoping.


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