Power of Choice

First off I would like to apologize for the lack of update last week. The time I had slated to sit down and write ended up vaporized by the unruly and downright rude demands of mundane life. Knock off a day for American Thanksgiving and next thing you know here we are. If the fates allow I’ll try to sneak in a catch up, so be on the look out for that. Without further ado let’s into the breach once more.

“What do you do?” One of the oldest bits of Pen & Paper RPG lore out there. I can only glint the periphery of how this has effected my gaming and my time behind the screen. With four short words the burden of what comes next is lifted from the game master and place squarely on the shoulders of the players. The field is open, your decision may spell certain victory or certain doom for not only your character but the entire party. And that decision, well it can be just about anything you want. Magic and future tech in settings means we are not even relegated in our decisions to even make choices that would work in reality.

The good of it? Well it seems to be one of the largest draws of the medium itself, anything you can imagine goes. The limitation is the limitation of your mind. This seems to be the same underlying concept that has made the video game Scribblenauts so successful. When the limitation is your mind you can play however you want.

Can I make a Kraft 'Salad' check? Ha... puns.

Can I make a Kraft ‘Salad’ check? Ha… puns.

The bad? Analysis Paralysis. It’s an actual a thing, go look it up if you haven’t heard it before. Understanding this concept will actually help you have a better role playing experience. Some times our vision gets so fixated on how we try to accomplish something the actual accomplishing becomes secondary. If you have ever been shopping and stared down a wall of salad dressing, peanut butter, soft drinks, snack foods, and so on, you understand this concept. We trick ourselves into thinking there is a definitive right way, or right’er way, and that is how you win. Make the wrong choice and you’ll regret that peanut butter for the rest of your life. We push to the side the actual goal of it all, say making a PB&J. This is the specific and official reason why my wife does not enjoy tabletop games (there is of course the whole geeky fantasy/sci fi thing as well). That infinite solutions exist to a problem and each is roughly as valid is the next if agonizing for her. She needs a defined and obvious right’er way to measure her success. It’s not bad some people are just like that.

This has really been dragged up to the forefront in my weekly gaming group since one of the players is a young boy. While others think and mince over how, he does. Granted this is not always the best idea but everyone has probably been in a group where everyone is paralyzed with how to proceed next. Usually it is because they don’t know enough about the upcoming trials to determine one course of action from another as better. Our youngest player with all the subtlety of the battleaxe takes things straight ahead. Perhaps the most brilliant twist of whimsy is in an adventure all about kobolds he plays the only character able to understand and converse in their native language. He has then proceeded to put the entire party’s feet in his mouth at every diplomatic opportunity. I continue to give him rope to hang himself with in these situations because it is entertaining for everyone and tends to resolve the situations much more succinctly and with more participation than they might otherwise.

Often times it seems like we get hung up as adults on failing. But with RPGs failing does not always mean losing. If your PC dies does that mean you lost? Does getting beat in a fight mean you lost? Life in general is just a series of failures strung together. Experience is the positive result of failure. It’s granulated in RPGs. And while it is an abstract concept it is hard to say it doesn’t do its job. If you’re smash mouth fighter who always goes toe to toe and generally you win encounters some might say you don’t particularly learn anything from it. But at level up the PC earns feats, powers, abilities, stunts, more HP, better gear to do the things he already does. We attune the PC to accentuate our play style. It’s a natural thing to do. But within the narrative you can say the PC got better at what he does by doing it over and over again. I have said it before but I think Green Ronin’s pen and paper RPG, Dragon Age, has the most novel approach to experience. You gain XP determined by how difficult the situation was to overcome. If XP equals learning it is easy to see how you might not learn anything from a low level encounter the party steamrolls. The point is success and failure each hold beneficial effects and that unless a PC actually dies you didn’t particularly lose. At worst the situation’s goal changes. Heck, it might be more interesting and fun than the previous situation. Defusing a bomb with four hours left on the timer isn’t as thrilling as four seconds.

My advice is to not get lost in the how. The best way in my experience is to keep presence of mind to the goal of the situation. What you are trying to accomplish should dictate your strategy and tactics pretty easily. Unless you’re goal is butcher every sentient being in a dungeon fighting room to room is just as valid as negotiating or infiltrating. Seriously, next time you run a dungeon try not to fight anything. ANYTHING. If you really want to play the role of an adventurer remember people have a general aversion to getting dead. Drawing weapons is generally a last resort and even then the result 90% of the time would be one side fleeing. It doesn’t mean your PC is a coward, just that he enjoys living and not being beaten, stabbed, and flayed open within an inch of his life on a regular basis. Pfft, ridiculous right? How dare we desire imaginary people to think and act like not-imaginary people.

Two bits I also try to remember personally when adventuring.

1. A Wrong Decision Is Worse Than Indecision

2. Fortune Favors The Bold

Number one basically boils down to this. If you feel a lull of indecision in the party and analyzing no longer seems to be productive just do something. It’s what our battleaxe wielding PC would do. If it doesn’t seem obviously stupid and suicidal, do it. Experience shows this fairs surprisingly better than I usually imagine. At least by doing something you will get new information that if nothing else will help you analyze the situation better. Generally though you will begin its resolution with that single step forward. Otherwise you might waste another 10 – 30 minutes over maybes.

Number two, you get nothing from doing nothing. Notice it says favors the BOLD, not the STUPID. Be brave, not reckless. Make your PC the next spokesperson for Nike and just do it. Nothing gets your DM/GM’s blood pumping like a character stepping up to the challenge and being genuinely heroic. It happens less than you realize, until it actually happens. The downside is occasionally this is going to blow up in your face. But that’s all right, you know why? -points to number one- And never, ever underestimate the significance of going first. Doing so means you set the tempo and situation. It allows you to be active and not just reactive. It’s maybe a little meta, but so is any actual discussion of tactics during play.

So just make a choice and do something. The truth is you’re going to pick the wrong thing a lot of the time. From behind the screen I feel like any time I give players and option they take the most obtuse and roundabout way possible. That’s just how things are I guess. Luckily most RPGs are created with a mind to make PCs especially resilient. A single mistake is rarely ever going to get you killed in an RPG assuming your DM/GM isn’t actively trying to exterminate you. And if so, well it’s going to happen no matter what you do. So if you can’t go with your head go with your gut. Or just leave it to chance and roll a die to make the decision, who cares as long as you’re playing instead of talking about playing.

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