False Choices and Living Worlds

I often think about what it would be like to be young again.  I remember long weekends and vacations and summers spent crafting campaigns and worldbuilding.  Writing out adventures complete with detailed maps, stat blocks already looked up, and NPC’s created for my players to run into.  Those were fun days, since worldbuilding was and remains one of my favorite activities.  Joann and I like it so much we not only do it to publish settings, we write fiction in those worlds, though mostly for ourselves.  This is partly because we enjoy writing, but partly because it’s a way we can interact with that world organically and discover it on our own so that we can communicate it to potential players and other Game Masters.

Sadly, as happens so often, people, including me, grow up.  New responsibilities come along.  Things have to get done, like paying the dreaded bills which requires work.  Suddenly, the vast amounts of free time I had to spend dreaming and writing and plotting and planning are no longer vast and usually, are no longer free either.  And so in order to stay in my hobby, things must change some.  But we’ll get to that.

I’m sure there are many of you that have done what I have.  The sense is the one I alluded to in “Don’t Hide Your Plot Behind the Dice”.  Your players need to have an encounter with a bandit because two days ago, he stole a signet from a noble that passed through the same way as well, or you need your players to find a particular dungeon that they need to go through to get a magic item.  Two roads (or more) are available to the players.  In parallel universes, the players that choose Option A?  They find the bandit (or the dungeon).  The players that choose Option B?  They too, find the bandit (or the dungeon).  False choice, or illusionism is the practice of offering players what seems on the surface that might be a meaningful choice, but in actuality, leads to the same results.

The real question to look at is, does it matter?  Young me, would have given a very emphatic ‘YES!’.  To him, worldbuilding actually meant knowing what was down every road, in every house (or at least, most of them) and in every dungeon.  But as I said, as we get older and to keep playing in the time I have available, sometimes things have to give.  Dave Hartlage (known online as DMDavid), whose article got me thinking about this subject, posed the question this way:

“GMs running campaigns aim for three targets: player freedom, world detail, and ease of preparation. Those of us who must keep a day job can only choose two. Illusionism seems like a way to cheat by dropping player freedom while making the players think they remain free. If the players believe their choices count, what does it matter if they don’t?”

David Hartlage, “Faking Choices for D&D Players (Emphasis in Original)

It is very similar to the old manufacturing maxim: “You can have it fast, cheap, or good.  Pick two.”  Ultimately, there is only so much time.  And if that is the case, some sacrifices must be made on what gets prepared.  If that weren’t the case, guides like Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master (by Michael Shea) wouldn’t exist and be as popular as they are.

So back to the question: Does it matter?  In his article, David seems to say that ultimately, the answer is: No it doesn’t.  It’s a qualified no, but it’s still no.  Now since you’re all here, you’re all reading this blog, I’m going to assume you want to know if I agree with him.  What my answer is.  My answer is: Sometimes, but not always.  In order to explain what I mean, I want to talk about another concept, that of Living Worlds.

I am a big fan of the concept of Living Worlds.  I believe that player characters should be presented with and be able to make choices that affect the world around them in meaningful ways.  They start a bar fight and burn down a tavern.  Those characters are now wanted by the law and jailed or worse on-sight in that town.  The characters kill a tyrant ruler.  Whoever the next person in line for the throne takes it, whether good or bad.  A dungeon is cleared out of monsters and looted.  That leaves a pretty clean environment for someone else to move in and use it as their base of operations rent-free.  The concept of a Living World means that the world reacts to the characters’ choices.

So, what does that have to do with our discussion?  Well, getting back to the concept of available time, even in a setting that I try to make a Living World, there is not enough time in the day to permute every possibility of what a choice the players/characters make might affect.  So, I use my gut to tell me what the “big” ones are.  These are usually the ones that speak to “exciting” changes – civil wars, coups, monstrous incursions, widespread peace, aversion of natural disasters, resolution of curses, etc…  For those big ones, I try really hard to keep the interaction between the characters and the world natural and the results natural as well.  The biggest reason for this is that wonky, gamey moves with player choice that you do as a GM in these situations are much harder to explain away narratively and above all, I want story continuity in my games.  If it’s not there, the immersion is not there and then, suddenly, the players are not swept up in a story that they can escape into for two to four hours a week or two.  And in my mind, that’s what they come to me for.

With that said, not all choice interactions are created equal.  The smaller in scale the choice interaction, the much more likely it is that you can offer a “False Choice” and not only have the players not know, but have it be narratively acceptable.  In the original example, it really does not matter narratively whether the players choose Path or Option A or Path or Option B.  What matters is that they run across the bandit or the dungeon.  That’s where the action is, so get them there.  On the bigger situations, however, the choices of the players should be more deliberate.  If they choose NOT to depose the evil tyrant, what happens?  In a Living World, there should, absolutely be some horrible things happen.  I would absolutely kill people that the players know and rely on because they chose not to act.  Making things personal like that, makes it harder for players to ignore the plot because you have gotten them invested in relationships.

So back to the question:  Does offering a False Choice as a GM matter?  I would tell you that it does when the stakes are big enough relative to your campaign (and only you as the GM can really tell where that line is), and it doesn’t when they are smaller than that.  The bulk of us have limited time to prepare games for our players.  We want to provide a memorable experience and tell amazing stories with them.  Sometimes, that means taking shortcuts and, as long as you don’t use any one tool all the time, using the False Choice as a shortcut for low-stakes decisions does not have to be a trust or a game-breaker and can be a time-saving tool.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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