This guest article by Brian Holland talks about effects and consequences, and theme-wise it seemed perfect to follow up our time travel bender. What was that crunch under my gnome boot? – John
When we hear “The Butterfly Effect” we conjure images of bad sci-fi time-travel movies, or maybe even recite the popular statement “A butterfly flapping its wings in Texas can start a tornado in Tennessee”. The effect is best summed up by the concept that small causes can have huge effects (you can read all about it here if you’re interested). However you choose think about it, it’s really cool, and that’s why it occurs so often in fiction. The fiction we read and see in books, movies and video games is very different than roleplaying games, however. A great example of a video game doing it well was the recent “Until Dawn” – a cabin-in-the-woods teen-horror game – where very small decisions could lead to major outcomes (as when NOT shooting a squirrel very early in the story with one character can lead to another character escaping the psycho… you’d have to play it to see how that plays out). A video game that uses the Butterfly Effect needs to be very meticulously planned out. A roleplaying game needs planning too, but not necessarily in the same way.
Butterflies Of The Past
Years ago I was in a game where our party was rushing along a narrow mountain pass to get back to our home town minutes ahead of a huge zombie hoard. We needed to rouse the town guard and possibly get some residents to safety before town was overrun. In despair, our wizard asked if he could use a fireball to cause a rock slide and slow the hoard down a bit. Sure he could. Some dice were rolled and – WOW — the slide was even larger than we could have hoped for. It took out a good portion of the hoard and hemmed them in for us. It was like shooting zombies in a barrel! We saved the town and everyone in it!
A couple sessions later, we desperately needed to find Captain Humli of the town guard. He had vital information for us! It turned out that the rock slide had completely cut off trade, and was causing riots in town as basic supplies were becoming scarce. The good captain led some of his men and a contingent of prisoners to clear the rubble and reopen the pass so that trade could resume. The prisoners escaped, killing all but one of the guards, including Captain Humli. We spent two sessions tracking down the information we needed, one of the prisoners became a semi-major NPC, and riots had ruined half our town – all because of ONE fireball!!
Sometime after that campaign ended I remarked about how cool that was that a single fireball had completely changed the story. Brad, the GM, laughed and said that all of that would have happened anyway! Humli would have been killed by zombies, an NPC in town was slated to become much more important, and zombies would have wrecked the town instead of rioting inhabitants. I was shocked. It had seemed so cause-and-effect while we played! Brad said he’d done things like that all through the campaign. He had big things planned, but could tweak and change the details based on our choices and actions, giving us the illusion of the Butterfly Effect.
Door A Or Door B
I feel like that’s the best way to handle the Butterfly Effect in a roleplaying game. Don’t play the “what if” game: What if they do this, what if they do that? That could lead to all kinds of planning that may never come to fruition! Instead, play the “so what” game: They did this, so what can happen because of it, and HOW CAN I USE IT? There are two keys to using it properly though. First thing is that you need to apply this to small actions and decisions. We (hopefully) already do that for the big “Door A or Door B” decisions, but it can be truly effective when applied to a minor decision or action. Second, you must let the players know that “Thing B” happened because of “Choice/Action A” that they made, or they may not even notice it.
A very simple example comes to mind: Upon character creation, a player is trying to decide whether his Wizard character will purchase a dagger or a staff. Make note of it. If the wizard chose the staff, then when the group of druids – whom you’ve already decided will be hostile towards the party – meets them they’re hostile because that staff is made from the wood of a tree that’s sacred to them. If he chose the dagger, then find another character-based action or decision to be the reason for their hostility (maybe the party forgot to extinguish their camp fire, which caused a small forest fire).
All that being said, it’s really up to you as the GM to track a whole bunch of little things that you normally wouldn’t, and after each session or so play the “so what” game with what you’ve got. Then weave those things into your campaign so that the players truly get the feeling that their everyday actions have affected the story. Make big plans, but let the small decisions add flavor and sense of the Butterfly Effect in your campaign.
I’d love to hear some fun examples or comments about using the Butterfly Effect in your games!
The more constrained your game (like you’re running a module, or have to complete the adventure in a con slot), the more useful this type of illusion can be.
If the adventure includes the characters retrieving the plot-token, and you have a map of the site where the token is held, responding to whatever they do with appropriate clues pointing the right direction is a similar fun tool. If they check the search history of the villain… yeah, he seemed to be looking up trips to Maui. If they use a divination spell… he’s somewhere tropical, with pineapples and an American flag in the background. Either approach should lead them to the right spot…
I am not sure if this squares exactly with the butterfly effect as you describe it but in my game my encounter tables (and tables that function like them) are designed to reflect actions taken by the characters in the past. I find this creates a far deeper sense of story. Not so keen on creating the illusion of the butterfly effect though, to me that comes too close to encroaching on player agency.
I’ve done this from time to time myself, but I strongly urge fellow GM’s to remember one of the most important parts of this technique: Never tell the players you use this technique.
Once the players realize outcomes (like part of the town being destroyed, be it by zombies or a riot) are predetermined, it can really suck some of the fun factor out of the game for the players.
A campaign feels a lot less immersive and fun if the group realizes OOC that no matter what actions they take in game, major events will still happen no matter what, and all they can do is effect how they happen, not whether or not they do.
As long as they are never aware the technique is being used, they will continue to feel as if their actions have a much larger and more influential effect on the campaign then they actually do behind the scenes. This in turn leads to larger player investment in the game, and more of a feel that the groups actions can drastically effect the outcome of major events. (Even if some parts are predetermined via the butterfly technique.)
I agree… Dont tell the players should probably be the first rule
I mostly agree with Silveressa’s caution. There are circumstances where you can be very clear about what you’re doing, because the players understand the constraints. (Con slots and modules are useful for this–everyone understands that it’s not your own story, so devastating the town by rockslide instead of zombie is going out of your way to adapt the module to the players’ actions.)
For players at your table, it’s best to keep to plausible deniability whenever possible.
You can make an exception to the general rule of silence when someone is bravely attempting to GM for the first time. It can make the job of GMing seem much less intimidating, particularly if your new GM is concerned that they’ll waste their prep altogether, or be unable to handle player agency. (I know both are recurring concerns whenever we lead new GM workshops.)
“I was shocked. It had seemed so cause-and-effect while we played! Brad said heâ€™d done things like that all through the campaign.”
Shocked, and – I venture to guess – a little disappointed (as a player).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: follow the magician’s code on this trick and never give away the secret (to players; GMs are welcome to it). Why?
1) It totally destroys whatever effect you’ve worked so hard to create.
2) It tells the players that next game it doesn’t matter what they do. It will either turn out well or turn out badly because the GM has it all pre-planned. The players are only along for the ride. This is a path to player disinvestment and Dying Campaign Syndrome.
I have erred on this myself a couple of times and regretted it every time once I had the leisure to consider. And when I *did* think about it, the only reason I could come up with for the drive to tell the secret was that at some level I needed the players to think I was cleverer than they were giving me credit for being on their own.
And the look of loss in certain players’ eyes at the news that it was all thanks to clever me tweaking a pre-given ending to fit rather than their effort alone was never, ever worth the payoff.
And I just saw Silveressa already made this point more eloquently than I could.
As for using one of my own, my canonical story is the convention game of Delta Green I ran about five years ago which the players still talk about when they run into me.
It was designed as a bunch of set piece scenes written on cards. Some were repeat events that could be interacted with or left to get out of the way/run away from. Others were major scenes designed to lure the players in, present them with a “must act” situation and then let things play out as they would.
At no time were the player in danger of dying in one of these scenes, though madness was a distinct possibility, and many of the scenes were designed to fool the players into acting swiftly but having the chance to do the opposite of what they thought they were doing (and thus possibly driving them a little more over the edge).
The scenario called for the players to enter a town cut off from the world using a one-shot McGuffin, make their way to the center of the town and deal with what they found there.
I realized that I couldn’t guarantee the time slot available and so the show would have to be of variable length. After a bit of thought I understood that the only important part of the game was the Big Ending, where Everything would be On The Line. All the other action would then need only be entertaining and survivable, while conveying the proper Call of Cthulhu aesthetics.
So: a shopping expedition disguised as a briefing followed by an introductory scene they could take their time over, a random number of scenes to be avoided or interacted with as they saw fit (no matter which direction they moved in) at the cost of some small SAN loss, and A BIG ENDING with some stuff telegraphed at the start (so the players could feel smug) and a monster so powerful no GM in their right mind would use it normally, because hey, convention game, and if the job has been done right the players will be delighted rather than enraged.
So I came up with the cards, six of which had the very best ideas I could come up with, each that could have been the kernel of a game scenario on its own, the rest evocative scenes that could be entered and expanded upon at need.
People are still talking about some of the episodes on those cards, and one gave me such joy as the panic ensued that for the first time ever in one of my games I let a player get away with screaming “I’m not looking!”
Well, he was driving, and it was a Dhole the others were blithering about.
And at the finale it was sweet music when one player shouted “A Hound of Tindalos? I’ve never even seen one of those before!” on seeing the old Grenadier encounter model as the thing from beyond time oozed out of the imaginary corner of the imaginary laboratory intent on eating his imaginary persona.
And afterward not one of them realized they had been on an arrow-straight railroad with nary a single siding or passing loop.
I love it when the actions of the Heroes in one session lead to greater problems later in the campaign. This interweaving of previous events can give the Players a great sense that their actions matter to the story.
My take on your Butterfly Effect is a little different to your GM’s. I have come to value the Apocalyspe World advice of “playing to see what happens”. I want the Players to surprise me, and I try to avoid scripting events.
Thanks for sharing
Tales of a GM
Phil, can that be done and you still have a story arc? I like the idea of “seeing what happens” AND having a fairly structured plot without railroading. Can you have both without doing what the article suggests? I’m very new to GMing and just want to give the best possible experience I can to my players. Thanks!
I have been giving this some thought, and there is no easy way to combine both approaches.
The more your structured plot assumes particular actions by the Players, then the more railroading you will need to keep the story on target. Some groups are more forgiving of this tactic, if the end result is enjoyable. This is a matter of play style to be agreed upon by each group.
However, in my experience, there are a couple of things you could do. Firstly, as GM, you may experience more “seeing what happens” if you dial back your plot structure. You could assign a broad theme to the campaign, and explore that story together. I like to assign dramatic poles, our new campaign has the theme Rebellion vs Redemption. These two concepts will weave through character development, background events, and smaller story arcs within the game.
Secondly, the loose plot to our campaign is the struggle of the Heroes to journey across the Plane of Air in their flying tower. Can they navigate the hazards, and bring their soldiers back to safety? I would like to think so, but I am prepared for events to overtake the Heroes, and it all end in disaster. Give you campaign similar loose goals, and you will not be pushing for one outcome, or another.
Finally, you can guide the progress of the narrative by what you choose to focus upon. In many games, the GM decides upon the instigating events which begin a session, or quest. If you choose instigating events which point to the issues you want resolved in the game, then the chances are each session will revolve around your planned theme.
Of course, you need to be prepared to let the Players take the narrative where they want to go. Yet, by choosing the focus of the session, a GM can exert some gentle influence over the broader narrative, without restricting Player agency.
Does that make sense?
Best of luck with your game
Tales of a GM
Phil, that does make sense and seems to fit the theme of the article very well… I choose the initial conditions (how and where butterfly flaps its wings) and let the player choices and decisions dictate what happens (where or even IF the tornado pops up).
I just have to have a loose enough plot so that I don’t NEED the tornado to pop up in a certain place, or at all.
So instead of “prevent NPC X from doing thing Y that will destroy the world” my plot needs to be something more like “protect the world from the evil cult”, and guide the narrative through set up of each breakup-the-ritual-of-the-day session (speaking very broadly of course).
This still lends itself to a central villain, I just need to flap my butterfly wings in certain ways to ensure they meet up.
Glad to have helped. I think you have a good handle on the idea.
Best of luck with your game
I use the term “choices and consequences” rather than “butterfly effect”, but take them all to mean roughly the same thing anyway (only that butterfly effect has more long-term implications)
The illusion of the butterfly effect as Brad had done was something I used to do, but lately I’ve stopped doing so because it’s hard to not tell the truth when players straight up question me about it. Instead, I’ve taken to using more non-linear methods. If players don’t achieve the “optimal” outcome of a situation, they won’t necessarily become disadvantaged; rather the failure presents an opportunity for another advantage.
For example, imagine a zombie apocalypse scenario taking place near a garage in a small town. Players may have an extra helping hand if they choose to save the town mechanic, Joe. Now, some players wouldn’t think this far ahead. They’d just leave him to die. So, although they’d lose a helping hand, they would also have a distraction for the zombies when they come for them. Plus, this adds a nice surprise when players find out that Joe’s wife had actually known of their leaving him to die.