Corridors of Choice: Decisions by Design
Games, be they tabletop RPGs, boardgames, and video games (including computer games and all digital games) are defined by the choices they give you.
Some are cosmetic: such as hair color or appearance or whether you’ll be a top hat or a car.
Others can be more impactful: such as race or role. What they allow you to do and not do within the confines of the system are as important as any other.
In tabletop roleplaying games, the most important value everyone touts is freedom of choice. But too much choice can be as confining as too little. Too much choice can result in a paralysis. Are you making the optimal, best choice? There are endless threads abounding on all sorts of systems and games and what the ideal, optimal build is. Or the ultimate strategy or the like. As if you make the wrong decision, your experience won’t be as satisfying as it could be. Again, the specter of choice and value judgements silently whispers into your ear. In some modern video games, you can reload, try another direction, get the trophy, and move on. A game satisfies most when there are repercussions for failure, when a die roll means something, and when choices really matter. Does it matter if your hair is red or blue? Likely not. However, if your hair selection turns out to be an indicator of whether you will be burned as a witch or praised as a messiah, you’ll likely be more interested in what hair dye you purchase the next time you’re talking to a market.
When things make sense, when they interlock, when there is some sort of grand design, satisfaction abounds.
We are hardwired in our desire for resolution. We want things to be tidy. We want threads tied up. We want to know who the killer is. What monsters lurk in the forest. We want to save the downtrodden. We even want to be the heroes sometimes or at least get our revenge or give a comeuppance to those deserving. We want the antiseptic fairy tale endings we’ve been force-fed from our youth (not the unadulterated stories where grey moralities and visciousness are often found). Entertainment reflects the ages and some games are more about the journey than the destination. In most horror games, players go in with the expectation of death or madness or worse. They want to experience the vicarious dangers and delights and traveling through the corridors of choice with at least some small chance of stopping the ritual and saving the world and putting off the darkness for another day. It’s in our nature.
Opportunities for heroism abound most when there is a great threat to overcome. This is not new to the genre or even me. This goes back to Beowulf and beyond. Still there is the importance for the subversion of tropes, to offer up mystery and surprise and suspense, whilst still providing enough touchstones of familiarity and foreshadowing to pay off those participants with the reward of piecing things together and achieving some level of resolution, however minor. And victories in battle are an immediate reward loop: heroes fight a monster, defeat monster, and gain reward (experience, treasure, or advancement of story). When they lose, the loop extends slightly: fight monster, get beaten, discover monster’s weakness and/or gain strength (via smaller reward loops), defeat monster, and gain reward. It’s so cynical to say rinse and repeat, so I’ll leave it to you to throw in (or not) at your own discretion.
Lifting Back the Curtain
If you don’t want to know a few tricks of the trade, stop reading. You have been warned.
Choices branch or funnel.
A branch is where a choice is presented, leading to another set of choices and so on. Branching can introduce some permutations and interesting variables, but can leave sections of material unused and untouched, so the perceived value versus the developmental time is not generally a good return on investment of resources. This is where home brew games or games more reactively minded (such as tremulus) shine as they can be tailored for a particular group of characters and the developer knows (or should) the quirks of their players. (Can someone not resist trying every unknown magic item, read every forbidden tome, or flip every switch? Your GM pays attention and silently thanks you for your cooperation.)
In most formal, professional adventure designs, funneling is used more often than extensive branching.
Funneling is largely an illusion of choice. Players are given a choice of multiple routes with (generally) little narrative impact: do they pursue the bandits, save the villager trapped in a burning building, or delve into the dungeon before the showdown with the evil dragon? Each decision may close off, restrict, or alter subsequent choices, they often don’t.
- Restrict: You pursue the bandits and the villager dies. The dungeon delve remains unaltered.
- Close off: You save the villager and the bandits get away (close off). Alter: The dungeon becomes the new home of the bandits.
- The Funnel: The dragon still awaits.
Generally, when you do one thing, the other things are still waiting for you. Why? Someone spent time making these things and wants you to experience them. Someone bought the thing someone spent time making and wants to get maximum return on their investment by having you go through every square inch of adventure.
The contrast in these examples is intentionally high, but there are some elements of truth and likely ring of familiarity to many of you.
Which is Better? False Choice and Emergent Narrative
Like gadgets in your utility belt, there is a time and place for both or the consideration of other alternatives altogether.
Branching works best in informal contexts, such as home games, in lengthy works where you are given the opportunity to explore boundaries, or when the journey is more important than the destination. As direction is largely player driven, some threads may go unresolved for long periods or completely abandoned.
Funneling is best for con games , one offs, when you’re writing with an eye towards publication, or when your group (reasonably) expects regular resolution of plot points with a rise and fall of action.
Blending the two many types of choice can strike a balance between branching and funneling. Creating an overall framework for a story (or campaign) allows there to be some shape whilst still permitting real choice for players within the boundaries of structure. Plot Point Campaigns for Savage Worlds strike this middle balance to a degree, though it could be argued the structure is nested funneling. This is sufficient to create the appearance of narrative choice. The randomness of player behavior and probability serve to maintain this illusion.
With the rise of more freeform styles of narratively driven roleplaying games, you don’t have to choose an either/or scenario as most are an admixture of both as defined by blending. This style requires a shift in viewing traditional player-GM dynamics as more narrative control is distributed rather than within the hands of one. This is found in FATE, Apocalypse World, and tremulus where one plays more to find out what happens than with a traditionally formalized adventure.