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Make Them Choose: Devil’s Choices for PCs

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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#1 Comment By Jeff On July 25, 2007 @ 5:10 am

For a fabulous example of an adventure that’s set up around a devil’s choice, check out the supplement “Slayer’s Handbook” for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game. Sadly, those are both technically out of print, as the publisher wasn’t able to come to terms with Fox for renewing the license.

Summary of choice: male character (could be PC, but could also be a supporting cast type) can either keep kewl powerz and have the Slayer die, or give them up die himself (helping the BBEG break out of its dimensional prison in the process).

#2 Comment By brcarl On July 25, 2007 @ 6:52 am

I think these “devil’s choices” are a GREAT way to spice up a session and drive some good role-playing.

Does it make sense to add a section to the GM Wiki here that includes a list of seeds/ideas for devil’s choices? Here are some I’ve got waiting for an opportunity to integrate (admittedly not very original):

– While raiding the evil guys’ camp to free some slaves, the party comes upon an altruistic prisoner tending to the wounded bad guys. She insists that her duty is to serve all those who need healing, even those who are not “pure of heart.” She doesn’t want to leave. Does the party force her to flee with the other freed prisoners, or do they leave her to continue helping the bad guys?

– The party notices a young street urchin trying to pick-pocket them. Upon catching the lad, it becomes clear he is destitute. As the party discusses how to deal with him, his younger disabled sibling arrives. Is it just a big con looking for sympathy, or do the little street children really deserve a break?

– The town’s last stand against the brigands has failed, and the evil leader parlays the party: join him in a raid against a competing group of thugs (who the party know as right-minded vigilantes) or his henchmen will finish the job of razing the town.

Heck, so long as I’m stealing genre tropes, why not get blatant?

– As the Final Battle nears its end, the BBEG reveals himself to be the long-lost father of one of the PCs. Kill him for his crimes, or spare him in hopes he will turn from his evil ways?

– A PC has fallen in love with a prince/ss (perhaps a benefactor-type NPC?), and the feeling is mutual. They are ready to approach the king/queen with their intention to marry when it is announced that the noble has been promised to the heir of a neighboring region. The arranged betrothed is, of course, despicable. If the PC and NPC elope, the entire area could be thrown into war.

Some of these might be too ingrained in the collective gamer psyche to be pulled off without groans, but I bet an imaginative GM could twist them to make them new again.

I’m rambling now, but having typed up a few it seems the pivot point is the choice between core values: love or money, safety or liberty, charity or lawfulness, etc.

#3 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2007 @ 7:52 am

Jeff: I’ve always heard that the Buffy RPG books are excellent — I’ll have to see if I can find a copy of the Slayer’s Handbook to browse through at GenCon.

brcarl: That sounds like a great idea for a wiki section, and I like the choices you’ve written up here — thank you!

Reinventing the wiki with a much tighter focus, and probably with different wiki software, is on my list of post-ENnies projects. I’ll probably start getting the itch to tackle it in August.

#4 Comment By Telas On July 25, 2007 @ 9:12 am

“There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right and never the twain shall meet.”
-H.I. McDonnough
Raising Arizona

When these come up in-game (and yeah, they rock), I think the fascinating part isn’t the decision that’s made, it’s how the party members who wanted to do “the other thing” deal with it.

As a GM, I’ve found that I need to make sure the players are on board with the “choose your path” approach. So many players are convinced that there’s a “right answer”, if they only had some more clues.

#5 Comment By Benjamin On July 25, 2007 @ 9:13 am

Here’s a great one for good or neutral PCs that I’m currently using:

Have a benefactor, boss, king, or guy that hires the group be of questionable morals and suspiciously unknown motives. He or she gives the PCs a mission that they really want to accept, but the PCs will need to think twice about whether doing the mission really is in their best interest or not.

And of course, their choice will have very real consequences in their world when they must choose to allow an orc tribe to live, for instance, or allow their boss’ unknown plans to come to fruition by slaying the orcs.

#6 Comment By Andy Dahl On July 25, 2007 @ 10:58 am

Great topic.

I have one of these planned into my campaign early on that should decide the fate of the rest of the PCs lives. I’m running a Star Wars game set on a planet that is controlled by a corrupt, but benevolent government. There also happens to be a resistance movement on the planet that is portrayed as a terrorist group. One of the first sessions is going to have a setup similar to the “Train Job” episode of Firefly where they are hired by one side to steal something, but that something turns out to be direly needed for the other side’s survival. If all goes well, the players will have to choose between returning the goods or finishing the job, and will force them to pick sides.

#7 Comment By Lotus On July 25, 2007 @ 11:45 am

I have recently played in a game where there was a “Devil’s Choice”. It was an Eberron game where we (the party) came across 3 minotaur thugs which we subdued and took back for the bounty. It was also hinted that they held information to an evil Cult of the Dragon Below we had been trying to oust so we took them back to HQ for questioning. Torture was suggested and I, as the NG cleric of The Sovereign Host, had to stop the rest from doing so. Needless to say there was much talk of drugging the cleric and tying him up in a separate room when further investigations took place.

#8 Comment By Heather On July 25, 2007 @ 12:21 pm

Hard choices are absolutely fabulous. But I do have to agree with this:

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.

Too many devil’s choices tend to leave your players (or their characters) feeling like no matter what they do, their characters get screwed over. So they need to be used sparingly, and preferably on players who really enjoy drama and character-building. Also, no matter how attached you are to your devil’s choice, if someone comes up with a particularly clever way around it, it’s really obnoxious to subvert that just because you’re wedded to the idea of having your devil’s choice. See above point about players feeling they’re being randomly screwed.

I absolutely love these moments, but part of what makes them so great is their rarity and their climactic nature.

#9 Comment By clem On July 25, 2007 @ 1:01 pm

Those old enough to remember Ultima IV may recall that starting character class was assigned based on devil’s choices between various virtues. At the start of the game you were given a series of little scenarios ending with questions like “Do you Justly punish the thief or Mercifully forgive him?” There was a downside to either choice in the scenarios. The idea was to identify the character’s dominant virtue and assign a class accordingly.

#10 Comment By blackheart On July 25, 2007 @ 6:45 pm

I’ve had a devil’s choice in one of my recent World of Darkness games. The players were searching for the whereabouts of this young girl, because they believed that she had been killed and her spirit was haunting her birth mother.

The players found the child’s foster parents, but found no other leads to where the child was. The foster parents swore that the child had been taken to another family, but the parents seemed eerie. The players (already being sought by the law) decided to don ski masks and fake a burglary into their home to find evidence. They found two other children bound and ganged upstairs and a video camera tripod…you get the jist. The players decided that he must know something of the child, and they believed he was involved.

The devil’s choice was difficult. Either torture the parents to know what happened to the girl and risk the cops showing while they were there, or dispense their own sense of justice which meant no more foster parents 🙂

The players found an alternative around this puzzle. They knocked out the foster father and took his keys. they stuffed both of them in their SUV. One drove while the other one used “excessive” force in interrogating the The foster parents admitted to accidentally killing the child while abusing her and then covering it up.

the player took vigilante justice and burned the SUV with them inside. Since we were playing WoD, they took a morality hit for their cold-blooded justice, but it helped define the characters. I apologize if the subject matter was too graphic. But I thought thought this was an interesting example, and the players jokingly tell me that that game has tainted their minds 🙂 When you’re GMing WoD, no pulling punches.

#11 Comment By Jeff On July 26, 2007 @ 5:37 am

Martin — Everything that Eden puts out is fabulous quality product, but the Buffy and Angel lines were especially potent examples of this. I’ll again lament their inability to come to an agreement with FOX for renewing the lines.

OTOH, you should also be able to leaf through a copy of Ghosts of Albion while you’re there, if George (Vasilakos) is lucky.

#12 Comment By Redwinter On July 26, 2007 @ 8:45 pm

Just to throw another one out there:

A plague ravages a village, and a scant few are likely to survive. The King’s Guard wants to burn the plague (and the villagers) away before it can spread. How do the PC’s step in?

#13 Comment By Jennifer Snow On July 27, 2007 @ 7:09 am

I don’t like “devil’s choices” on principle because I believe they are not realistic. There should *always* be a third option (or the possibility of *making* a third option) that requires a whole lotta legwork but results in an overall better solution. Simplistic, bad, either/or choices are for suckers that are too lazy to do the work.

The hard choices I prefer are ones in which the characters have to decide what is most *immediately* important or what is primary in their hierarchy. Disarm the bomb or get the prisoners to safety? Go home and help your family or finish your mission for the king?

I find that this is where your real role-playing comes in because choices the players have made previously really come into play. Do you have allies that can help you cover all the bases simultaneously? If not, your players should be *kicking* themselves that they weren’t more polite to the NPC’s. Can you hire someone to do the job for you? I’ll bet you’re wishing you saved some of your loot, now, instead of spending it all on the Uberweapon. Doing things like this makes the acquisition of several different kinds of resources an important part of the game.

The nice thing about “third option” tough choices is that you can *fill* your game with them without pissing off your players. Every single problem can be an apparent choice between two obviously poor alternatives.

Do you scramble through the narrow tunnel to where you know enemies are prepared to pick you off one at a time? Or do you risk climbing up through the hole in the ceiling which is a.) noisy and b.) risky?

Do you leave your injured friend behind and risk something bad happening to him, or do you take him along and risk something bad happening to the entire party because he’s a liability in his current state? On and on and on. When your players solve the problems in novel ways that allow them to bypass the problems entirely, it is fun for everyone.

This, however, only applies if you are running a good party. Evil characters should rightly be faced with devil’s choices because it is in the nature of evil people to try and have their cake and eat it, too. As in:

You’ve kidnapped the woman you love, but her current paramour is your hated rival. If you kill him, she’ll hate you forever, but if you don’t, he’ll keep coming after you with larger and larger forces.


You’ve stolen the Jewel of Ultimate Power for your employer . . . do you actually give it to your boss, or keep it for yourself in the hopes that you can figure out how to use it before he can get to you?

Simply put: don’t punish your good characters for their virtues. It is precisely those traits, if they hold true to them, that should grant them success in the long run.

#14 Comment By C B H On July 27, 2007 @ 7:58 am

I’m currently running an XCrawl campaign. I have what *might* be a devil’s choice coming up for the PCs.

One player left the game a few months ago. The ex-player’s PC (founder of the PC team) has now been caught by his rival (the captain of the party’s original rival team) and turned into a half-golem. The PCs will manage to acquire the “remote control” for their newly-templated friend. What to do? Destroy their friend, now a Neutral Evil monster? Leave him alive with a murderous hatred of mortal beings? Turn him into the authorities, and forever question his fate? Or will the PCs surprise me with an unforeseen plan? I mostly want to see how they resolve this moral dilemma. I’m not so much interested in the result, as I am interested in the reasoning for the decision.

#15 Comment By Stygian Jim On July 28, 2007 @ 2:59 pm

Years ago I ran an Exalted game where the PCs were faced with a devil’s choice plot. The PCs were traveling east in search of a powerful artifact. They had just saved a walled city from a hobgoblin siege that lasted two sessions. I wanted a low, or no combat session to give the group a break and so concocted the following plot.

While moving along one of the trade roads the PCs came across a young girl crying and injured at the bottom of a nearby ravine. Once they had pulled her out of the ravine and had mended her broken leg, they discovered that she was running away from home. While tending to her the healer in the group had noticed that for such a young child she had many badly healed wounds, and bruises that did not fit with the injuries she had sustained from her fall into the ravine. After speaking with the girl the party leader discovered that the girl had been physically and sexually abused by her father not long after her mother’s death.
Horrified, the leader of the party, and one of the two female players in the group, decided she would not return the girl to her village. This would have been fine, if the PCs, who were traveling with a merchant caravan, could have gone around the town. As it was, the caravan needed to stop in the village and local law held that all female children under child bearing age were essentially property to their family elders until they were married, and their were no laws forbidding the father’s acts.
The PCs spent the whole game arguing over what they should do. The parties resident scoundrel offered to kill the father should the party leader wish it. She refused, believing there was another way. They spoke with the village elders, who would not bend their laws and traditions for outsiders. They spoke to the villagers, who confirmed that the father had been rumored to have abused his daughters when he drank, and had turned to drinking heavily after his wife’s death. Finally they talked with the father who seemed to genuinely regret his actions, but would make no promise to stop his drinking.

In the end the PCs decided that they would have to burn their bridges with the town and kill the father. To their dismay the father was brutally slain by an uknown monster before the party’s scoundrel had arrived and the murder was pinned on the PCs anyway. Not very much happened that session, and not a single die was thrown, but it was probably some of the best roleplaying I had witnessed in my few years of GMing.

#16 Comment By Martin On August 1, 2007 @ 8:47 am

(Jennifer) The hard choices I prefer are ones in which the characters have to decide what is most *immediately* important or what is primary in their hierarchy. Disarm the bomb or get the prisoners to safety? Go home and help your family or finish your mission for the king?

I’m not sure we’re saying different things here — I’d view both of these examples as devil’s choices. Whichever option the PCs take, something bad happens because they didn’t take the other one, right?

#17 Comment By Kestral On August 3, 2007 @ 1:56 pm

I’ve been thinking about this topic the last few days, and I’ve come to a conclusion about a subject I’ve been asking myself about: “Are devil’s choices appropriate at the beginning of a game, rather than at the climax?”

As a technique, it seems promising, because it can tell you as GM what the players are individually expecting.. without needing to ask them personally. In this case, the decision isn’t the key bit; it’s how they make the decision out of character that matters. In this case, I think it best to force each player to make their own ‘devil’s choice’ that contributes to the group’s choice as a whole, but provide an overall choice that serves to make it easier to tell early on who might be a bad fit for the group, or who the unspoken leader is, at least in a new group.

Plus, no person’s likely to be too attached to the game/characters yet, so it’s a lot less likely to create major disagreements than it would later on, if you make it one that the players dislike, the overall whole isn’t damaged too much.

It’s harder to create the necessary “devil’s choice” aspect, though; without that built-up attachment to one aspect of the game or character, you have to present things that ping less strongly on the individuals’ passions.

In this case, I’d say the classic “two kingdoms are at war, and the PCs are stuck in the middle” scenario is the sort that works best, as it focusing the game’s flavor by either forcing players to adventure in one area (and thus reducing effort on the GM’s part) or by making the game at least semi-focused on the power shifts between the two factions.

But I feel that this sort of choice is something that you need to carefully execute, lest it leave a bad taste in the players’ mouths…

#18 Comment By Martin On August 6, 2007 @ 4:49 pm

Kestral: Devil’s choices should definitely be handled with kid gloves — and I like the idea of putting them up front. That leaves room to explore the outcome of the choice over the course of that session, rather than wrapping up with the choice and not getting to see the results in such detail.