A Sign post stands in a foggy forest between two roads

“You could wear the suit,” he said to me, in his most logical, persuasive voice, “and then she wouldn’t get hurt. I know you love her.”

 If this were real life, it would be tragic, but since it’s a rousing game of Fiasco, it’s fun. 
I stared at him, speechless — do I don the suit that will inevitably catch me on fire, or watch the love of my life put it on instead, and hope that I can save her? My indecision becomes a decision, and I’m there to witness the consequences of my actions. If this were real life, it would be tragic, but since it’s a rousing game of Fiasco, it’s fun. I love having to make difficult decisions as a character, to see what I think they would do and weigh their past experiences and the narrative and make the most interesting choice. These kinds of decisions are key challenges for your players.

What Do I Mean By Difficult Decision?

Before we jump into how to think about decisions, let’s get a quick definition out there:

Decision: a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration. In psychology, decision-making is regarded as the cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities.

Difficult: needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand.

So a difficult decision in a game is when you are presented with two or more possibilities whose outcomes are hard to weigh between — for instance, do you wear the flaming suit, or do you let your evil manager put it on the girl you’re in love with? Both outcomes are bad, but maybe if you’re not wearing the suit you can save her fast enough? Except what if you can’t get to her in time? Or, for a less Fiasco decision, do you hand the magical book of instant wish granting over to the evil cultists in exchange for the safety of the city you protect, or do you save the world at the possible cost of your home and loved ones?

 Fun from challenges is the fun of overcoming obstacles, and what is a difficult decision if not an emotional obstacle for us in game?  
We game to fulfill many different needs. Sometimes it’s just fun, and sometimes it’s an exploration of ourselves, our world, and our society. If we talk about the kind of fun that difficult decisions are, I see them as one of the inherent challenges of RPGs (a reference to the 8 Types of Fun). Fun from challenges is the fun of overcoming obstacles, and what is a difficult decision if not an emotional obstacle for us in game? Full disclosure, I have a game in joint development right now called Turning Point that is an exploration of how humans make decisions. It is, at its core, the game of hard decision making. The challenge of a hard decision is one of the things that draws me to gaming.

Why Include Difficult Decisions In Your Game?

  • They add conflict and interest to your games, both internal to the players making a decision, and to the table as a whole. The choices they make will affect both their characters and their world as they go forward. They add depth to the characters, the world, and the narrative.
  • It’s a moment to make your PCs stop and think instead of just smash, smash, smash. When they are presented with no clear positive or negative outcome, they have to think, or possibly even look outside the box for more creative answers.
  • It’s safe to make hard decisions in games—it is pretend, after all, no matter how the outcome goes. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun if it goes badly, because our consequences are imaginary and can be left in the game. Real life doesn’t let us fail gracefully, but in an RPG, we can.
  • Your game table can be a safe place to explore moral dilemmas because again, the consequences are imaginary. Even so, we take the memory of making those decisions with us, and from a purely social standpoint, those experiences can help us when we come to decision points in our own lives.

How Do You Make a Decision Difficult?

  • Have clear stakes. When you present them with the problem or situation, lay out clearly what is at risk here. Will the hostage be killed if they make a wrong move? Will the priceless artifact they’ve been hunting for weeks tip in to the pool of lava if they don’t choose wisely?
  • Raise the stakes. Once you have clear stakes, or if the stakes are known, raise them. Hit them where they hurt—in the feels, in the wallet, whatever it is that motivates your players. Does their baby sister turn out to be the big bad? What happens if they take her out? What happens if they don’t?
  • Make no clear positive or negative course of action. Work in shades of gray. If that’s the PCs baby sister chanting on the pedestal while she plunges the sacrificial knife downwards, do they know if she’s possessed? What if they can save her? What if they can’t?

The most difficult decisions I’ve ever made are some of the best gaming memories I have. I always hope that I am making difficult decisions for my players too—these decisions also make truly interesting stories. What are some decisions you’ve presented your players with?