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Make Them Choose: Devil’s Choices for PCs (July 2007)

Treasure Tables is in reruns [1] from November 1st through December 9th. I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month [2], and there’s no way I can write posts here while retaining my (questionable) sanity. In the meantime, enjoy this post from our archives.
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When it comes to the PCs, hard choices are the steam that powers the engines of character development. Without that steam, that energy and motive force, the PCs won’t develop nearly as quickly, nor in such interesting ways.

I’m not a big advocate of forcing anything player- or PC-related, but this is an exception: hard choices have to be forced. A hard choice, also called a “devil’s choice,” is one where there is no perfect outcome — no matter which course the PC chooses, something bad will happen simply because she did not choose the other option.

Something good will happen, too, in the resolution of the option the PC did choose, but it’s how that PC changes as a result of her choice that makes for memorable gaming sessions.

Why? Because just as in books, movies and other media, which way a character jumps when he’s under the gun in an RPG will tell you, that character’s player and the rest of your group a lot about that PC.

Sometimes, it will even tell you things that no one — the character’s player included — knew about him until that moment, and that’s why hard choices rock.

This is best illustrated by example — here are three tough choices (sometimes called devil’s choices, because if the devil gives you a choice, you can bet that neither option is a good one):

• Do you save the king, without whom the kingdom will be plunged into darkness, or prevent your hometown from burning to the ground?

• Under questioning, do you ruin an allied NPC’s life by telling the truth about her, or sacrifice your own morality and lie to protect her?

• Though in custody, a kidnapper refuses to tell you where he’s stashed his victims, who remains trapped without food and water. Do you torture him to make him talk, or risk the chance that his victims will die before you can find them?

As a general rule, hard choices should not involve one PC deciding the fate of another PC, unless you’re playing a particularly grim game (and you know your players can handle it).

Instead, tough choices should revolve around NPCs (friendly or otherwise — being forced to grit one’s teeth and save an enemy makes for great roleplaying opportunities), significant objects or locations, moral or philosophical decisions and the like.

Every choice in your campaigns shouldn’t be a devil’s choice, either. These kinds of choices can lead to some powerful roleplaying, and are best reserved for climactic or otherwise highly significant moments.

Those moments can come at any point in an adventure — a tough choice right at the outset will shape the entire evening, whereas one made at the end of a session will leave your players saying, “Holy shit, that was rough.”

No matter what form the choices you create for your players take, though, the key ingredient is knowing the PCs. It’s impossible to present a player with a meaningful devil’s choice unless you know what her PC holds dear.

If you’ve never forced a choice like this, give it a shot — it can be a pretty intense experience for everyone involved.

What kinds of hard choices have you created for the PCs in your own games?
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Normally there’d be a discussion going on in the comments below, but due to time constraints I’ve turned off all comments during reruns — sorry about that! You can read the comments on the first-run version of this post [3], and if you need a GMing discussion fix, why not head on over to our GMing forums [4]?