Choice of N: a simple but effective GM technique

Scotty: How thick would a piece of your Plexiglass need to be at sixty feet by ten feet to withstand the pressure of eighteen thousand cubic feet of water?
Dr. Nichols: Oh, that's easy - six inches. We carry stuff that big in stock.
Scotty: I noticed. Now suppose - just suppose - I were to show you a way to manufacture a wall that would do the same job but be only one inch thick? Would that be worth something to you, eh?
Dr. Nichols: You're joking!
-- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Say a character in one of your games is going to do something offscreen, or perform some complex task that could have a number of possible interesting results. Or maybe the player just missed a session and you want to find out what happened to them.  What do you do?  You could spend a bunch of time having them make rolls and play out solo scenes, but that's boring for the other players and not very creative.

Now suppose - just suppose - I were to show you a technique that would give you all the benefits of playing out a montage or flashback scene but require only one roll?

Would that be worth something to you, eh?

The Technique

Credit where credit is due: I got this technique from D. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World.  I've got no idea if he came up with it originally, but what I do know is that I use this all the time in my Dungeon World campaign and there's no reason you can't use it in any RPG.

I'll give  some examples later, but first, here's the process:

List 3-4 good or bad things that could happen based on what the character is doing. They have to be interesting; they can't just be "you succeed" or "you fail".  The details can be vague; in fact, for offscreen action, it's best if they're vague.  For bad things, always phrase them as a negative, i.e. "you avoid doing [bad thing]" or "[bad thing] doesn't happen".

Pick an appropriate stat or skill and have the player roll:
On a high result they get to pick 2-3 things they want from the list
On a moderate result they get to pick 1-2 things from the list
On a low result they get one or nothing at all.  You can let them pick or choose yourself, whichever is more interesting.

Note: make it clear to the players that there is no "right" or "wrong" choice, just what they want to see in the fiction.  This may be a disconnect for some players at first, so help them through it.

Work out what happened, filling in detail collaboratively (especially for offscreen stuff).  Why collaboratively?  Because the players are going to have ideas you wouldn't think of, and the players often choose to complicate their lives in interesting ways that would seem downright mean if they came from you!

Finally, if the roll is happening at the climax of a scene, you can narrate a cinematic sequence that uses the choices and details you've decided on, without any additional rolling by the players.

In Dungeon World and other Powered by the Apocalypse games a moderate result is a 7-9 and a high result is 10+.  In D&D 4E, they might be the easy and moderate skill DCs for the player's level.  In Pathfinder, you could use appropriate fixed DCs (say, 15 and 20).  You could set thresholds of Fair and Great in a Fate game, or 4 and 6 in Savage Worlds.  These are just suggestions - you can use any numbers you like for your thresholds, or even add a third threshold for four tiers of success and failure.

Examples

These are all examples of "Choice of N" from my current Dungeon World campaign:

The Great Heist

Our old Thief missed a session, so we decided he was casing something valuable.  I had him roll (might have been INT - it was a while ago) and choose:

  • the item was ridiculously valuable
  • the item was not well-protected
  • the item would be easy to transport
  • he didn't draw attention to himself

He got a mixed hit and picked that it was valuable and that he didn't give himself away.  We then as a group tried to figure out what it was; they were in a tree city, so we eventually came to the conclusion that it was a World Ash seed - the only one the tree had produced in ages - and that the reason it was hard to transport was that it was 8 feet across!  This giant MacGuffin, which was created almost accidentally as the side-effect of the roll, became a central quest item in the campaign.  This also led to them adding three pretty awesome NPCs to their entourage - a high elf gardener and her two young siblings.

The Great Heist, Part II

At one point, the party found themselves in the building housing the World Ash seed.  The seed was held in place by wards and heavy rope, guarded by a ring of dormant ropers.  In addition, the estate guards were on the way.  The PCs needed to free the seed from its bonds without triggering the wards (which would have released the ropers and gotten them all murdered) as soon as possible.  The Wizard wanted to burn through the cables with magic while avoiding the wards; I told him to roll INT and choose:

  • you do it without much collateral damage (which could have included blowing through the floor - a serious danger when you're on a platform high in a tree city!)
  • you do it without triggering the wards
  • you do it before the guards arrive

He didn't blow up the room, and the guards arrived just as the seed was freed.  The druid ended up turning into a wooly mammoth, grabbing the seed, and sinking through the floor by sheer force of his weight - which triggered the wards, causing the ropers to rope him - which in turn acted as bungee cables for him to fall safely down to the next lower tree branch.  The guards, on the other hand, were left in a burning building surrounded by angry ropers!

This was a case where the choices weren't interesting in and of themselves, but each of them would have led to a very different (and very entertaining) action sequence afterwards.

Rain Dance

The party had successfully stolen the seed, but they needed a way to keep it damp so it wouldn't go dormant for centuries (making it much less valuable).  The Druid suggested a ritual to summon rain, which would be fine, except that I didn't want to make it easy.  I had him roll WIS and gave him the options:

  • it won't take long
  • it won't require expensive materials
  • it won't draw unwanted attention

He got a mixed hit and I gave him one option; he chose that it would be cheap.  Half the party ended up dancing naked in a public square for an hour while the other half distracted the town guards.

Dunce Cap

The party met a wizard named Ovid who wore lots of hats, and the hat he wore determined his personality and even abilities (he was kind of a silly character). He had captured some NPCs and the World Ash seed and was going to return them to their "rightful owners", so the party worked out a way to defeat him.  The cleric, one of whose domains was fashion, would take an old wizard hat and convert it into a dunce cap; they'd then slip it onto Ovid's head and walk out with the goods while he drooled.  I had her describe how she was going to alter the hat and roll WIS, then pick:

  • it was no longer a wizard hat
  • it was now actually a dunce cap
  • it folded elegantly and was easy to conceal

She biffed the roll and chose only the third option (because of course she could not fail to create something elegant), which led to a hilarious sequence when the party Wizard snuck the hat onto Ovid's head and he proceeded to transform into a dragon (because it was a Merlin-style hat and that's the sort of magic Merlin does).

Friends in Low Places

The party Wizard, Bard, and Thief were trying to rescue the two NPC elf children from a drider priestess.  She was going to use them in a ritual to summon the physical presence of a spider goddess [who was emphatically not Lolth for copyright reasons].  They cut the children free but the ritual completed and the goddess possessed the body of the priestess.  While the Thief kept her busy, the Wizard and the older girl summoned a demon to fight for them. I had the Wizard roll INT; his options were:

  • the demon was well-contained in the circle
  • the demon was positively disposed toward the Wizard
  • the demon was negatively disposed towards the goddess
  • the demon was actually capable of defeating the goddess

He got a mixed hit and picked that it was friendly and could defeat the incarnation; he then had to talk it into actually doing it.  He failed that, which set of a humorous sequence of events where the elf girl (who was a wizard in her own right) charmed the thing and sent it into the fight half-dazed, which opened up an opportunity for the Thief to find the avatar's weak spot (Shadow of the Colossus-style) and kill it.

Choosing Options and Thresholds

Here are a few tips for creating options, from my own experience:

  • Good options are not dead ends or easily-remedied things; good options lead to interesting plot.  "You avoid getting poisoned" is a good option if the poison is slow-acting and curing the character will be a challenge; it's a lousy one if the party healer can cure poison at will.
  • If it's not interesting for the character to fail then it's perfectly fine to say "You succeed, but" and then list a set of complications; the player picks which complications they avoid.
  • Likewise, you can say "You can't quite do that, but" and list a set of lesser positive outcomes.  This is great when the player has suggested something that you don't want to allow but you don't want to shut them down either.
  • Good "negative" options are things like drawbacks, additional cost, harm, strings attached, drawing unwanted notice, putting yourself in a spot, pissing off the wrong people, placing people you care about in danger, collateral damage, something falls into the wrong hands, etc.
  • Good "positive" options are things like getting something else of value, useful information, a new ally, unexpected utility, progress towards a goal, etc.

Also, keep your thresholds consistent and reasonable.  It's best if your thresholds are always the same (7 and 10; easy and moderate skill DCs; Fair and Great; etc.) so the player never feels like they're being surprised or shortchanged - especially if they botch the roll.  Make the moderate threshold low enough that an average character can hit it about half the time; set the high threshold so that an average character has a chance to hit it but only skilled characters can hit it routinely.

Apocalypse World and Dungeon World do occasionally set a third threshold for "extra success" at 12+ - this high threshold should be something that only very skilled characters can hit, and only some of the time.  The very high threshold would be equivalent to the difficult skill DC in D&D 4E or a DC of 25 or 30 in Pathfinder.  If you add this threshold, it should allow the player to either pick all of the options, pick one of the options to count extra, or even to suggest another positive outcome not on the list.  Use this sparingly, though - it's usually not interesting if the player gets everything they want!

Why Use Choice of N?

Because in the examples I've given, the outcomes were either things I wouldn't have come up with on my own, or that I wouldn't have been able to inflict on my players arbitrarily.  By giving them choice and a hand in the creative process, they became invested in what happened and didn't balk at the complications.  More importantly, the campaign was infinitely richer for the players' input, and infinitely more entertaining too!

My suggestion is this: use this technique whenever you find yourself asking: "what happened back there?" or "what could the outcome of this possibly be?" or even "what are the possible complications here?"  Then put it on the table and see what your players pick - they'll often surprise you!

[UPDATE] Why Not Use Choice of N?

My friend and fellow podcast host Highcove has posted his own take on this technique, from the perspective of someone who runs primarily D&D.  What he found was that some player groups simply can't handle narrative choice - they either freeze up or just pick whatever choices they think everyone else at the table will like best (i.e. what's best from a strategic standpoint).  If your players have trouble with these types of choices, then my best advice would be:

  • Avoid "Choice of N" in tactical situations or when the result would interact with resource management.
  • Do use "Choice of N" to find out how MacGuffins work, in purely political situations, etc. where the focus is the direction of the plot rather than the immediate situation.
  • Express to the players ahead of time that all of the choices are valid, and all missed choices will result in complications; there's no right choice - just what the player wants to see in the fiction (if there's ever a "right" or "wrong" choice, it shouldn't be one of the options anyway).

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