More and more these days, I am fascinated by the power and role of decisions. Decisions create buy-in, generate unexpected outcomes, and provide drama. As I’ve come to see it, most of all, decisions provide meaning.
But not all decisions create meaning—to do that, a decision needs to be personal, needs to have weight, and has to be visible. Each of these things is challenging to engineer reliably. I’ve been trying to take stock of what works for me. This is what I’ve come up with so far.
To be personal, a decision needs to affect the person making it more than it does random people on the street. It doesn’t have to be their most important decision ever, but it has to be about them—about their own concerns, about what they can do for others, whatever.
As a GM, I have had the most success when I can pull in something specific about a character and pose it on its edge, looking for it to teeter one way or another. This requires zooming in on details—someone’s character is a Ranger: How do they handle a wild bear in the town square? Someone’s playing a world-class hacker: How do they react to someone they care about having their identity stolen?
I find it harder to push at these from the player side—often the biggest thing one can do as a player is have a good sense of those same details and to communicate them to others. Good systems can help with this. Leverage, for instance, makes the creation of distinctions a group process, which immediately radiates the information about a character through the group.
As for weight, I think the person making a decision needs to affect the world around them. It needs to radiate outward from the person into the world at large. The characters need to encounter the echoes of their choices for them to feel like they were ever made. This is also true of decisions that don’t pan out, perhaps even moreso. When I think about “make failure interesting,” this is what I think about. Failure, like success, needs to have weight.
When I’m GMing, the biggest tool I have for this is NPCs. The characters whose lives have been affected by the players’ actions need to come back at least once, sometimes a lot more than once. I attribute most of the success of the modern American TV show serial to recurring non-central characters. Characters like Virgil, in Burn Notice or Rawls in Life. As a player, I find myself seeking out the people I’ve crossed paths with, to see how they may have changed. I ask the GM for information about how a decision I’ve made has affected others. I’m constantly soliciting that feedback, because I love seeing the effects my character has on the story.
Which leads me to the question of decision visibility. By visible, I mean there needs to be some recognition that the story has reached a decision point and some discussion around the decision. The best ways I’ve seen of doing this actually are more intrusive than immersive. It’s as if having some mechanic that pulls a player out of the fiction to discuss what’s going on draws more attention to the decision itself. Fate does this really well with compels—which is a mechanic we’re kind of stealing (and altering) for Piece of Work.
But even when there’s no system in play, when someone’s character makes an interesting decision, I’ll ask why they decided on that particular choice, or even just for clarification. So, if someone’s paladin beheaded the orc priest after he surrendered, why? Does their character think it was the only way to end things for good, or were they vengeful for the children the villain sacrificed to the infernal powers? As a player, I try to telegraph my reasons a bit—Be Obvious is good advice here. If I let the orc survive, I’ll say “No, I don’t think I can condemn someone without a trial.”
Of course there are other modes in which to play a game—I’ve heard more than one person say that they prefer to take more of an audience role than one as an actor. I’d like to explore that as well. I think there are lots of ways to establish meaning in that mode. But at heart, I’m most comfortable in looking for meaning through decisions. Hopefully these tools can be helpful to others who are similarly wired.