Binary Decisions and the Sweet Promise of Permutations

Reality is a lie. Choice is a myth. Or is it?

In roleplaying games, we deal with constructed fictions where choices should have consequences so we avoid railroading the characters. Conceptually, this idea is all well and good, but in reality, crafting something to take into account all variations and possible outcomes is an impossibility, even if it’s attempted in broad strokes, so what’s a designer of adventures to do?

Answers vary radically, but I’ll present my proposition, and it’s a simple one. Present the two most likely outcomes and then provide suggestions and insights as necessary if things go sideways. Sounds simple? Of course, but simplicity often requires an understanding of human behavior and a systemic approach to things requiring sound foundational underpinnings for this approach to be successful. Some of you, may consider my proposition as dry as sawdust and you may find it goes down as well as ground glass in a fruit smoothie–while it may sound tasty, it could cause you to cough up blood and bits of frozen strawberry, so let me provide an example to help filter out those nasty silicate particles.

The characters encounter Roderick, a known rogue and rascal, and need to find the whereabouts to the Lost Gate of Ghen.

How do you decide what the two most likely outcomes of the scene? First, you have to see what the need is and, in this case, I’ve made it painfully obvious–they need to extricate some information. The two most likely outcomes are 1)the characters get the information or 2)the characters fail to get said information. Now, if you’ve made those the two logic branches, you still need to explicate and embellish and, if you’re so inclined, you can address the angles of approach in garnering said information.

1. If any characters hail from Glenford and mention this fact, Roderick willing shares the information and even offers to tag along. The characters can persuade or bribe Roderick and he provides the same information and goes about his business. Optionally, the character can threaten to expose Roderick’s illicit activities or threaten his family, and Roderick shares the information through grinding teeth, only to later wait in ambush when the characters exist the Lost Gate later on.

2. Should the characters reach an impasse and fail to gain the location from Roderick, the characters encounter a young boy, one of Roderick’s recruits, who provides them the information. Roderick later learns of this and the boy is found murdered with no direct connection to Roderick, but rumors of his bloodthirsty nature are easy to substantiate.

Now, as you can see in the above example, while we began with a simple binary logic branch—do they gain information or not–we provide enough variability within the supporting information to eliminate the perception of railroading. Certainly, we are progressing the adventure, as the characters are funneled back to the same end result–the location of the Lost Gate–but the experiences of two different groups of players can vary a great deal as there are differing consequences to their actions. Projecting this out over the course of the adventure where each scene has just two main choices, you’ll arrive with stories which have some overarching commonalities but, ultimately, provide differing experiences from one group to the next.

This, obviously, requires forethought and intent on the part of the designer to craft something to support this structure and may be construed as an unnecessary time sink by some, but at the end of the day, it makes for a richer, more satisfying adventure experience for all involved with the added benefit of more robust replay value. As such an approach keeps both the group and GM’s interest high, adventures designed in such a manner are well worth the time (and brainpower) expended.

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

2 Notes on, Binary Decisions and the Sweet Promise of Permutations

  1. Excellent! Thanks again for the great design information. Flowcharting narrative is a great way to keep games on track. One variant that’s a bit more tedious (but quite satisfying) is the three-way branch based on a “failure”, “partial success”, “complete success” trinity.

    This can be translated as “painful”, “unsatisfying but okay”, and “glorious and gratifying” in terms of how players perceive the narrative process. It follows the “stupidity should be entertaining for players but painful for characters” school of GM narration. Ia!

  2. Three branches do work, but begin to approach diminishing returns status in the design arena. Most things fall into one camp or another. Do the characters defeat the orcs or are they driven back? Do they stop the Ritual of the Silver Spawn or do the cultists succeed with their dark rite? A lot of traditional scenarios approach things with a “failure is not an option” sensibility and move forward with a not unreasonable assumption forward progression is based upon successes.

    Two variances, on the other hand, should provide a GM with the ability to address the nuanced shades of grey between these polarities.

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