Choose Your Way to Better RPG Session Prep

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The Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and The Witcher video game series have all made names for themselves by forcing players to make important choices throughout the game. Although decision points in tabletop roleplaying games aren’t bound by a studio’s limitations the way video games are, many game masters (myself included) don’t capitalize on our medium because we don’t consciously consider giving players meaningful choices while we plan a campaign.

Instead of preparing an adventure by assembling a series of encounters, game masters can design their narratives around meaningful choices the player characters must make. The rest of their adventure prep will entail creating the groundwork for the PCs to run headlong into those choices as well as the consequences the PCs will suffer as a result. This might feel like working backward to GMs used to more traditional prep, especially since we subconsciously give our players choices all the time. But by making decision points our foundation, GMs can grant the players real agency. Agency means the players will be emotionally invested in the game, which will make their sessions truly memorable.

Step 1: Create an Adventure Outline Using Decision Points

Game masters can take inspiration from good interactive fiction (such as the Telltale’s series of games), which offer branching paths of narrative based on the decisions the players make. The story diagram for the first season of the The Walking Dead game(spoiler alert!) is a great example of how you might construct your paths based on meaningful choices. For the GM’s sanity (and to reduce the amount of unused prep), those branching paths should reconverge at various points in the story, and you’ll notice the story diagram does this as well.

In this new type of prep, you’ll begin by brainstorming some dramatic scenarios in which the PCs have a meaningful choice. The decisions don’t always have to be an either/or choice. They might be a question of methodology (such as renegade or paragon paths in BioWare games), or a matter of degree. Write them down as questions that pose the different choices:

  • Will the PCs head deeper into the dangerous ruins, or will they heed the non-player character’s warning?
  • Will the PCs ally with the militaristic clan, the diplomatic clan, or the cunning clan?
  • Will the PCs destroy the powerful, cursed artifact—or will they keep it for themselves?
  • Will the PC bluff their way into the mansion, or will they fight their way in?

Keep the questions that resonate most with you, and order them in a way that makes sense. Some questions may beg other questions, so jot those down as well.

You’ll notice that in my example questions, I had already begun to pepper in adjectives such as “dangerous” or “powerful” or “cursed.” Choices become emotionally resonant and dramatic because they have important stakes attached to them. If the PCs don’t understand why their decision matters, their choice won’t have the same level of impact. The choice of whether to venture further into the dungeon becomes even more important when the NPC threatens to retaliate if the PCs ignore them. The choice of which clan the PCs ally with matters more if the PCs have pre-existing relationships with those clans that could be damaged, or if one clan or another has more influence in an area.

Step 2: Flesh Out the Context Surrounding the Choice Points

Once you have your list of decision points, it’s time to create the characters, locations, conflicts, and motivations that provide the context for the choices available to the PCs. You’ll need to map out the ruins for the PCs to explore or not explore, as well as the justification for why the PCs might want (or need) to explore them. Devise the personality of that NPC, the reason they don’t want the PCs exploring the ruins, and the shape their retaliation might take.

If you’re an improvisational GM or are running a sandbox-style campaign, you can leave your prep as notes. If you want to give your sessions more structure, you can translate your prep into encounters: while in town, the PCs hear about some ruins that hold a great artifact (a social encounter). They have to locate and travel to it (an exploration/investigation encounter). Next, they are warned off by the NPC (another social encounter). Finally, the PCs make their decision. Then, the GM prepares more encounters for each branch of the narrative the PCs could take.

Step 3: Provide Lasting and Immediate Consequences

Introducing the option to heed or ignore the NPC’s warning makes the session more interesting than if the PCs had simply heard about the ruins, found them, and then defeated the dragon in the ruins to take the artifact. The PCs’ decision becomes meaningful when a choice has an impact on them or the things they care about. If the PCs ignore the NPC, he may fight them on the spot or curse the artifact they find. If the dragon in the ruins was an ancient protector of the town, the PCs have left the villagers defenseless against outside threats. Actions have reactions. Choices have consequences.

Make sure that you prepare a couple of outcomes for each of the choices you present to your players. The fallout from their decisions might have an immediate impact, or you might decide that the full ramifications aren’t revealed until later on in the adventure. As you continue to prep your campaign, go back to your notes from previous sessions and consider whether the choices they made then have any bearing on their options now or on their chances of success. When their choices really do matter, your players will be more engaged in the story. They’ll come back every week looking forward to seeing how their decisions affect their PCs and the world they play in.

How do you create interesting and meaningful choices for your players? Share your tips in the comments below!

Image Credit: BioWare

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