Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I was explaining The Walking Dead to a friend over coffee yesterday. It’s a zombie story, but it isn’t really about the zombies. Just like Dungeons and Dragons isn’t really about dungeons or dragons. The Walking Dead focuses on the terrifying circumstances that confront the characters after a zombie apocalypse. The choices that they must make are made more urgent by the circumstances, but they are choices that face people in the real world every day. Life and death choices.

One recent plot on the show revolved around the choice whether or not to save the life of a wounded child. The adults debated whether or not a world full of zombies, and a life spent trying to avoid the same fate was really a life worth living. The choice was made more urgent by the necessity of surgery to save the child’s life, with the complication that not all the materials needed to conduct the surgery safely were on hand. This is the kind of choice that, sadly, I’m sure is playing out daily in many parts of the world. Talking about it in the context of an apocalyptic zombie invasion doesn’t belittle the significance of the choice, but rather gives the audience and the performers an opportunity to role play the impact of such choices and how they might be made.

Confronting players with choices that are meaningful, and have significant impact are the keys to player involvement in an RPG. Rewards and complications should await each decision, some immediate and others with broader implications. In an earlier post I talked about pillars, plot elements that may be addressed by the players when dealing with a component of the game or story. Pillars form a great structure for constructing meaningful choices. As a GM, you can also identify pillars for your PCs. What are the hot-button issues that will engage them in conflict?

But how do you get players tied in tightly enough to a campaign that they feel strongly about issues or people? One of the methods I used in my current campaign came out of discussions with Mike over at the blog wrathofzombie. He has experimented with a lot of different rule systems and game mechanics, as well as having written many of his own. I’ve almost always profited (in a gaming sense) from following his advice. He suggested a player questionnaire that included identifying three allies and three enemies for the each character. So, from day one of the campaign I had raw material in hand to use in crafting meaningful choices for my players.

Like the wounded child from The Walking Dead, the allies identified by my players for their characters are people the characters care about. They are motivated to aid those allies, or agonize when those allies come to harm, or are threatened. As the game progresses, I’ve tried to expand their circle of friends, providing more pressure points for conflict. And, in the process of determining whether or not these acquaintances are going to be allies or enemies, the players must make tough choices. Choices that sometimes determine which side of the fence the acquaintance lands on.

PCs may also uncover causes that they deem worthy of investment, or have such causes built in to their origin stories. This is another form of pillar for a character. In the capitol city of my campaign world, halflings are most often slaves. One of my players developed an ex-slave halfling who, in the run of play, has been spreading the idea that halflings deserve better. His activities and attitudes, the choices he has made in dealing with other halflings and humanoids, have begun to influence others. Things are changing, and there are consequences developing out of his choices. In some cases those consequences might be tremendously positive for the halfling population. But, as the United States experienced in the Civil War, a populace divided over the issue of slavery and the profit it represents can erupt in violence. The road to such a war is a long one, with many more issues than just the enslaved halflings. But at some point, the character may be forced to consider whether or not it’s a road he wants to be on.

As always, I’d love to hear about choices your PCs have been forced to confront in RPGs, and what impact they had on the story.


  1. I still think the scene you ran Keith sticks in my mind as the most powerful scene I’ve had to play aside from the suicide scene I recently had in Geist. In Geist, though, my character was already set in her decision and it only affected herself….although the other characters tried to change the outcome in different ways. In the scene you created (with the release of that evil God), I had to make a choice about the life of a party member. That was hard.

    Basically, I think the way it went down was that someone had to kill a fellow player in order to get a godlike power and to release the god. Suddenly, these ruthless killers started stepping away from the decision for reasons of honor, loyalty, whatever. But it was a hard decision. My character was very, very ruthless and she would easily cut NPCs throats and other things. But she really had to struggle with this decision. She wanted the power, but this was a colleague that had fought beside her and, ultimately, what came through was that she was too loyal to do it. Without facing that kind of difficult decision, I would have never known that was a feature of my 4e character (whom I still adore.) Ultimately, the choice did not have an impact on the story, but it was intense while it lasted and gave me some insight into the other individuals playing their roles as well.

    I’ve played other scenes which were powerful, but I was more of a supporting character or observer more than anything else.

    I know there are players who don’t like these kinds of conflicts and decisions because they involve emotion. That may seem scary because it’s “uncontrollable.” But emotion is not about overacting….it can be quiet and dignified. It can mean determining what is honorable for a character. Gladiator is a very emotional movie in my mind, yet still a “man’s movie.” It’s about courage, honor, risk-taking, freedom, loyalty, a man’s love for his wife and child, friendship, etc. I think that “drama” is not about screaming and crying, it’s about being human and making choices and living with them, even if they turn out to be mistakes. Even if you’re a tiefling, you’re still being played by a human being. If that human is not faced with difficult choices, how does their tiefling character grow? Sometimes you don’t know anything about your character until they tell you and that will only happen if you find yourself in a tough situation.

    But then again, some people don’t want that and will fight it or ignore it. It may be too much reality for them and they are playing to ESCAPE those kinds of realities. They really just want a “monster of the week” (not my term, unfortunately). And that’s okay too.

    Again, just an opinion and a preference.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Anna. RPGs tend to condense things into tight little balls of angst or ecstasy. Not every choice should be life or death. (As you rightly point out, some people don't want to face that level of intensity in their hobby, they are there for escape.)

    I think finding choices that involve those players is just as much a part of successful GMing as the "big" life or death ones.

  3. Amen to this post~ I heartily agree. Choice is... practically the cornerstone of my campaign architecture. In one of my current campaigns with the title Hair of the Dog, the running joke is that it should have been called Hair of the Decision.

    Consequences, depth of character leading to detailed effects for important considerations and choices, and meaningful results leading to the fun and enjoyment of adopting a role in a roleplaying game are really what I look for in them.

    You hit it on the head~