The Art of Tough Choices

wooden painted sculpture of boy gazing into the distance

As a GM, I love giving characters nail biting, soul crushing, world shattering decisions to make. It gives the players true agency over the story, and leads to gloriously intense moments of roleplaying. But these decisions only have their intended effect when they’re actually hard for characters to make. So, how do we craft tough choices? Every great decision (read: awful for the players) has three things going for it.

1. Significance – Making Characters Care

It’s the annual town meeting. The village leader stands up. “The Sun King has declared a tax on our lands. We must decide how we will pay. We can pay from our harvest, but we will overwork our land. Or, we can send our ten best fighters to serve in the Sun King army.”

Now, say the players are wandering adventurers passing through. They’ve never heard of the Sun King. Do they care about this decision? Probably not.

But what if their love interest is the best fighter in the town? Or if they’ve been raised from birth to protect the spirits of the land? Suddenly, town’s choice becomes important.

Significance is all about creating decisions that make the characters care. If the characters don’t care about the decision then they’re not going to waste time and effort making a difficult choice. They won’t be invested, and they probably won’t care about what happens next. So how do we create decisions that will make players sweat, and exclaim “oh shit”?

Here are my tips.

  • Find out how to push their buttons: Find out what the characters care about by probing them at key moments during play. Dig deep! People, places, causes, beliefs. What connections do they have? What actions do they regret? Write it all down! This is your malt, your hops, your yeast, that you’re going to brew into a difficult decision.
  • Go for the throat: When you create decisions, go for the throat. Put what the characters most care about at risk: or even better, create decisions that force them to put what they care about at risk.
  • Involve the characters directly: Where possible, involve the characters directly. THEY will be the ones sent to serve in the Sun King’s army. If they don’t want to go, they’ll have to think of some other way to pay the tax.
  • Think about the flow on effect: Who will be affected by the decision? Even if the decision doesn’t directly involve the characters, could it have clear flow on effects that will?
  • Make it life or death: When all else fails, make it a life or death matter. A year in the Sun King’s army is as good as a death sentence. But overtaxing the village resources could lead the whole town into slow decay. What about resistance? Well that’s the deadliest option of all.

2. Dilemma – Making Choices Real

Let me give you another example. The characters live in a planet torn by a war between two galactic empires, and have been asked to declare their alliance. Is this significant? Yes. The war is tearing their home planet apart! Now, of these two Empires, one is a tyrant species with no emotions that thrives on slavery and eats human brains. The other is an egalitarian democracy that thrives on beauty and art and prides itself on eliminating poverty within its borders. Who are the characters going to side with?

Is this a tough decision? Other than a few very strange characters, most would say no. In fact, you might even say this decision is so one sided, that it’s not a real choice. There’s no dilemma for the characters. They don’t need to fret over which path to take.

Now if we dig in further and have a think, why is this? Well, remember all that stuff you unearthed that the characters care about? Which side does it point the characters to? What’s better for their family?  For their future? For their country? Unless they have a strong pro-slavery belief, it all stacks up on one side.

How do we fix this? How do we create true dilemma for the characters? The answer is simple. Distribute the things the characters care about evenly on both sides of a decision.

For example. On one side is an egalitarian democracy that thrives on beauty and art. On the other side is a tyrannical empire – ruled by your family.

Now that’s a tough choice.

3. Consequences – Making Choices Count

So the character has chosen to side against their family and fight for the egalitarian empire. They proudly pronounce their new allegiance. Just after their decision, a force marches in from the tyrannical empire. They abduct the player and compulsorily conscript them.

So, what happened to the decision? It turned out not to matter at all.

The problem here is that the character made a choice, which the player thought would have really important consequences. But then it was revealed that really their choice didn’t affect the story. Not only might that suck for the player, who really wanted to fight for the democracy. But also, this is a form of player education from the GM. It’s telling the players – hey, your choices don’t matter. Don’t take them too seriously. As a result, you’ll have a hard time creating tough decisions in the future.

What you need to do is make sure that a character’s choices count. And you make them count by doing two things:

First, fulfilling the promise contained in your decision. In this case, that’s easy – let them fight for the side they choose. When you give a player options, and make them decide, you need to follow through with the consequences. Don’t hold back, and don’t override in the name of “narrative” or sacrifice the decision on the altar of some prepared story.

Second, bring the consequences home to the players. You can really be creative in how you do this. Think broadly, and don’t miss opportunities to remind the characters of the significance of the decision. So in the case of the town paying taxes to the Sun King, the players must pick the ten villagers who are sent to the army. Or in the case of paying with harvest, maybe they are in charge of collecting the food from the farmers?

So let’s recap! How do you create those tough decisions and hard choices that will really make your players squirm?

  • Significance: Why does the character care?
  • Dilemma: Is it difficult to decide which option to pick?
  • Consequences: Does the decision have ongoing and meaningful consequences?

That’s all for today from the GM Brewery.

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