Bioware, the publishers the ‘Baldurs Gate’, ‘Dragons Age’ and ‘Mass Effect’ franchises, are respected for the roleplaying structure in their games. They give the illusion of choice, allowing the player to craft the kind of character they want while still following a fairly linear plot.
A gamesmaster could learn a lot from this, particularly the emphasis of choice. By building the game around these choices you can give the players the ability to affect the plot in a meaningful way.
What is more, these choices will reveal important things about the character and how they develop. Are they merciful? Are they vengeful? Do they hope that evil can be redeemed Even the players may be surprised by the choices they make.
In simplest terms the reward for overcoming a challenge in an adventure should result in a choice for the players. Each choice drastically alters how the plot proceeds, opening new doors while closing others.
Over the course of the game these choices become bigger and bigger until they reach the climax. At first it will just be the characters who are affected by their choice but later their choices will alter the lives of other people, communities and even planets.
Choices fall into the following categories:
SHORT TERM VS LONG TERM
Either the character gains an immediate small reward for a limited time or a bigger reward sometime in the future. The short term choice makes things easier for the next scene while the long term choice makes things difficult for the next few scenes but easier later.
For example player characters free some slaves who were forced to construct electronic devices for their cruel masters. The PCs can either take the devices themselves to help infiltrate the slavers fortress or encourage the slaves to use them to escape.
In the short term the devices will help the PCs to get to where they’re going. In the long term the slaves will be able to return to their village and gather an army to help the player characters later.
REPUTATION VS REWARD
The character is presented with a choice that will either benefit themselves or others. If they choose themselves they gain a reward that will make things easier but another person or group will suffer. If they choose Reputation they don’t gain a reward but they help the other group or person. This does increase their influence, affecting how people react to them.
For example, the PCs find aliens have kidnapped people and linked them together to form a human computer. The PCs can use this organic computer to interface with the spaceship’s systems and cause it to crash or they can free the people and help them escape.
If they choose reward they have dealt with the aliens in one swift strike. If they free the kidnapped people they have created a new challenge for themselves (get everyone out) but further their reputation as heroes.
REPUTATION VS REPUTATION
The characters choice will affect how their reputation is affected. This will usually be an obvious choice between two extremes and reveal how the character feels about the issues that are important in the setting.
This choice affects how NPCs react to the player character and ultimately how they will be remembered.
For example the player characters stumble upon a confrontation between a space pirate and an Adjudicator. The space pirate promises them the location of a Key to Time if they help him escape.
If they let the pirate escape then they gain a reputation as outlaws. If they help the Adjudicator they become known for upholding the law. Either reputation could help or hinder them later.
IDEOLOGY VS IDEOLOGY
An adventure may contain several important ideologies that shape the setting. Player characters can find themselves in a position where their choice will directly advance the cause of that ideology.
The PCs could arrive in a time where genetic purity is a hot issue amongst the galactic community. Should races be allowed to mix or would this threaten cultural identity and invite chaos.
They could decide that diversity is good and help a mixed species couple get married or they could take the opposite few an expose the terrible genetic disorders suffered by children of mixed parentage.
Their actions and stance can have an impact on others, encouraging others to follow in their footsteps. Which ever side they supported will become stronger as a result.
FACTION VS FACTION
Different governments, gangs, companies, cults and species all may be encountered by the player characters. Typically these factions will stand in opposition to another faction, either due to incompatible ideologies and goals or because they are fighting over the same limited resources.
This type of choice puts the player characters in position to benefit one or the other of these opposed factions. This is not simply a matter of good guy faction vs evil faction. There is usually more complicated issues involved.
‘The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People’ is a good example of this with the Doctor, Amy and Rory splitting their alliances between the humans and the gangers. They can understand the motives of both parties and must decide who is right.
Player characters could be involved in scenarios where UNIT soldiers are put in opposition to journalists who wanted to reveal the existence of aliens or where miners go on strike for better conditions but in doing so they weaken their planet’s preparations for war with a hostile neighbour.
The choice affects something cosmetic but otherwise meaningless. It can affect how people react to the character. This could be something simple like what costume they wear to the fancy dress party, what undercover persona they adopt when infiltrating a restricted area or when joining social groups.
This type of choice could also determine the allocation of any character points to develop their character or the type of equipment they take to tackle the next challenge. It will affect their approach but little else.
Every combination of choices should always results in the player characters successfully completing the adventure. They should never worry that they could make the wrong choice.
Each choice is meaningful in its own way, each one building on the last. By the end of the game the players should see how the consequences of their actions crafted a conclusion that was unique to them.
In an on-going campaign this can help shape further adventures. Ideologies and factions they support will become stronger, acting as starting points of future adventures. The reputations they foster can turn them into legends or at least encourage other like-minded people to seek them out.
With the adventure of time travel PCs can leap forward in time to see their legacy for themselves. Inspiring an uprising could lead to a future utopia or a dystopia, both full of potential for further adventures and choices to be made.