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No Good Choices

I'd like to make a case for taking your game to the darkest places you can imagine. Not just with violence or carnage but the sort of horror that makes you question everything. This might sound complicated but it's actually very simple. You give your player characters no good choices.

choices.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

I should start by saying if you are thinking of running something exceptionally dark or intense, make sure the whole group are on the same page with this. There are plenty of safety tools out there these days, so use them. Seriously. You might think you know your group pretty well, but you might not know them as well as you think. If the purpose of the game is going to the places most people will be uncomfortable with, make damn sure everyone is willing to go there and what their limits are.

So what am I talking about? Put simply I mean moral choices with no good answer. In a game like this players are constantly faced with situations where they have to make a decision between two options they'd never contemplate, and where doing nothing is just as bad. They might have to kill a friend to close a portal, otherwise demons will tear the world apart. They might have to decide who doesn't get to eat so there is enough food for everyone, and where sharing equally means everyone will die. If someone has to be sacrificed, will they lay down their life or choose someone else? Every path leads to something they will have trouble living with. There won't be an opportunity for them to kill a stranger or the bad guy to save the world, its going to have to be a friend, of someone who wants to live and has so much to live for. When faced with these choices, what is the right answer, and what bad things will they contemplate to find a different one?

Filling your game with these sort of no win situations might not sound fun, and that's understandable. But this level of horror can lead to very intense gaming sessions. You will get to see your characters at their absolute worse, and possibly their best, and in this way they live all the more. By uncovering the deepest and darkest parts of your character you will get to know them far better than if they just went down a dungeon. Putting a character through the wringer emotionally is often far more painful than doing so physically and far more revealing. It also allows players to consider some terrible choices in a safe environment. What would you do in that situation? Do you think you could choose more wisely?

Dark moral choices force a story to move in a very different direction. Usually, when faced with two bad options the protagonists insist they will find a third, better option. They are held up as heroes for not backing down, believing that if they just keep going and avoid making the choice they will be vindicated. But you can argue there is a certain cowardice to this, a refusal to accept the truth of a situation and face it. But what if they are wrong and (as they were told) there is no third option. Everything comes crashing down because they couldn't make a decision. Are their actions still laudable and heroic?

It can be a hard lesson for player characters to learn that they can do the best they can, and possibly achieve their goal, but not be hailed as heroes. You may have closed the portal to the demon realm and saved the Earth, but Richard isn't coming back, and neither is his family. It is hard to call it a win when your character may spend the rest of their lives wondering if they could have done something, anything, that would have turned out better. How long this haunts them, and how much will add layers to them, and create new dynamics in a character group. It's been a few months, but Bob still has nightmares, but why has Sarah seemed to forget about it, and where does Carl go at night and why won't he talk about it?

These choices need not always be big ones. Stories are full of people who did something they knew was bad, but didn't seem that bad, and it paid them well or got their mum the medicine she needed. The mysterious package that just needs delivering, or the door that they just have to leave unlocked seem no big deal. The money is too good to not do something so minor. But they know that no one would offer so much if it really wasn't that important. When the package turns out to spread a terrible virus, or the open door allows a killer to go on a rampage its already too late. But your mum got her meds, or you could pay off your brother's gambling debts before the mob killed him. So everything's ok, isn't it?

This sort of game isn't for everyone, or every game. It works best in horror and modern games, such as zombie apocalypse style games or cold war spy drama. You may like to keep your games heroic, and that's fine. But it can make for some very intense role playing sessions and truly memorable games. It is fun to play a heroes, but heroes aren't really that real. Real life offers hard choices, and making player characters face those choices makes them seem all the more real.
 
Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I've come to the conclusion that if I'm going to have a moral quandary in a game I'm running, it's going to be one where the PCs have to choose between competing goods. It can be just as interesting, and I find "there's no bad answer" to be more enjoyable than "there's no good answer," even if they aren't all that dissimilar from a logic perspective. The problem with "no good answer" and moral quandaries is that it can lead to making the players feel as though their characters are being punished for having morals, which ... probably isn't why they're sitting down to play a TRPG.
 


HawaiiSteveO

Explorer
I’ve recently become hooked on the show The 100, which is jammed with these types of choices . It’s really interesting where the story goes, and I’ve started to think about how to add similar things to my game .
It doesn’t have to be start to finish , but cool to see how the players expect things to go a certain way then have a twist .
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
I dislike the notion of "good" or "bad" choices anyways. I'm more of the type that every action has consequences. Whether those consequences are positive or negative, great or small, worth it or not are completely left to my players.

Sure, if being hunted by guards and being unable to go into a city's shops is enough to dissuade the players from killing the duke, the consequences of killing the duke may be too great for whatever they hoped to accomplish. But if they don't care about the city at all or they're okay with being notorious criminals on the run, that consequence probably doesn't mean much.

I generally try to avoid giving clear-cut choices as well, since it usually invokes a sense that you don't have a choice until the DM grants them on a silver platter. I don't even try to predict the actions they might take since it will usually be a waste of time. I just have a deep enough understanding of the NPC and world that I can react in a natural way to most but not all actions.
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
You may have closed the portal to the demon realm and saved the Earth, but Richard isn't coming back, and neither is his family.
And I'm still crying about it.

I'm going to throw this (no good choices) out the next time my players want me to lead them by the nose/carrot.

I dislike the notion of "good" or "bad" choices anyways. I'm more of the type that every action has consequences. Whether those consequences are positive or negative, great or small, worth it or not are completely left to my players.
I'm putting you in charge of writing the D&D 6th edition alignment rules. I hear there's an opening over there.
 

jsaving

Adventurer
The problem with "no good answer" and moral quandaries is that it can lead to making the players feel as though their characters are being punished for having morals, which ... probably isn't why they're sitting down to play a TRPG.
I'd add that a game like D&D is largely about thinking outside the box and coming up with creative ways to help people in the face of scenarios that at first glance may seem impossible to resolve satisfactorily. When you as a DM have a vested interest in seeing those creative options fail because you want to see how a cascade of no-win scenarios will affect player psychology, you're potentially taking the game to a more tightly confined space where player agency is limited in the name of being realistic/intense. In a player base full of Kirks I can't imagine this working very well, though I can see people potentially enjoying this kind of thing as an occasional change of pace.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
Though I am not a fan of Jim Butcher, some of the things he says about writing are useful and he talks about, when it comes to Dresden Files, every actions the character takes in that serious makes something worse. This constantly ups the tension in the story to a climax. I think that this works well in a campaign or short adventure but in a Sandbox may not work as well and would be harder to pull off, though doable.
 


lyle.spade

Adventurer
Right now? With the world the way it is? No thanks.
Good point. On the one hand, we're surrounded by a lot of crap right now, and gaming can be a creative escape to a "happier place.' No harm in that. On the other hand, some might want to get a sense of accomplishment out of dealing with heavy things in-game as a way to take the weight off their real-life troubles, at least for a session.

I'm dabbling with both. I'd been running Kingmaker (for 5e) for most of the last few months, and we took a break from that to do some short arcs in different systems and settings. The tone of that KM game was pretty typical fantasy - not too heavy, and, frankly, with generally low stakes. Tomorrow I'm going to hit my players with the first of a few sessions of Vampire: the Masquerade (2e original books!)...and none of them have ever played it. We'll start with a forced creation event and the walls falling in on them. We'll see how that goes.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Good point. On the one hand, we're surrounded by a lot of crap right now, and gaming can be a creative escape to a "happier place.' No harm in that.

I think you oversimplify. There's a medium between "escape to a happier place" and "go to the place with no good choices". It is a place with, well, some good choices.

I'm not looking to give my players all sweetness and light. I'm just not looking to seriously add to the negative cognitive load folks are already under.
 

manduck

Explorer
I've been talking with a guy in my group who shares GM duties with me. We switch off games, so we discuss what works and what doesn't work. One of things we came to learn is that what makes a good story doesn't necessarily make a good game. They're different and for good reason. Would I want to read about a guy who makes hard choices and has nothing but problems in a post apocalyptic world? Sure that's a compelling story. Would I want to BE that guy. No way.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
Honestly, not a fan.

Maybe I have already watched too many movies where the villain offers someone no good choices, like "I'll either kill your mama or your dad, you choose". What is the villain's purpose? To make the victim feel responsible of a murder, where the simple reality is that the murderer and sole responsible is the villain, who is the one who is choosing to kill someone without nobody forcing him.

I have grown tired by this cliche, and yet it's still going strong (just watched another movie on Netflix about people being forced to choose who dies). What exactly does this scenario "teaches" to the audience? That villains always win, so maybe you should consider becoming one? That real life will give you hard choices so you better prepare and decide whose lives are more expendable?

No thanks. I'd rather spread the example that hope is always worth, and that there is always a way out. Because if you ever end up being in a no-escape situation, "preparing" yourself to it will not turn it into an escapable one... but getting used to the idea that "sacrificing someone may be inevitable" can make you insensitive about someone doing it when it is in fact far from necessary.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
One remove curse, two victims, whichever you choose the other will be your mortal enemy... such things supervillains are made of. There’s definitely space for this in a heroic game.
 

lyle.spade

Adventurer
I think you oversimplify. There's a medium between "escape to a happier place" and "go to the place with no good choices". It is a place with, well, some good choices.

I'm not looking to give my players all sweetness and light. I'm just not looking to seriously add to the negative cognitive load folks are already under.
Okay.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think you oversimplify. There's a medium between "escape to a happier place" and "go to the place with no good choices". It is a place with, well, some good choices.

I'm not looking to give my players all sweetness and light. I'm just not looking to seriously add to the negative cognitive load folks are already under.

It's possible that compared to reality, the existence of any good choices (or especially good results) makes the game world seem like a happy escape.
 


Jd Smith1

Adventurer
I suppose it could be done, but I've never really used 'good choices'.

To use the traditional trope, destroying the One Ring doesn't bring back the countless dead, make whole the mutilated, undo the economic devastation, and so forth. The happy ending was reserved solely for the tiny handful of PCs and their wealthy minions, not the countless widows & orphans impoverished by the war and political upheaval.
 

MGibster

Legend
Maybe I have already watched too many movies where the villain offers someone no good choices, like "I'll either kill your mama or your dad, you choose". What is the villain's purpose? To make the victim feel responsible of a murder, where the simple reality is that the murderer and sole responsible is the villain, who is the one who is choosing to kill someone without nobody forcing him.

I'm not a fan of such things when it's handled in a ham-fisted way like above nor am I fan of no good choice scenarios in all games. The classic example I can think of is when the DM gave the Paladin options that only resulted in something evil happening. Part of the reason I hated it was because it just didn't seem appropriate for a heroic game like AD&D. On the flip side, Sophie's Choice is about a woman dealing with the consequences of having to choose which one of her children will live or die simply because the villain only offered her those choices and it's considered a classic by many.

While I dislike it in D&D, I don't think it's inappropriate for all games as it can be a source of good dramatic tension. In Vampire 5E it's pretty much expected that players will frequently face situations for which there is no good answer and no matter what action they take someone will get hurt. At the end of the day, the PCs are monsters no matter which way you slice it.

I have grown tired by this cliche, and yet it's still going strong (just watched another movie on Netflix about people being forced to choose who dies). What exactly does this scenario "teaches" to the audience? That villains always win, so maybe you should consider becoming one? That real life will give you hard choices so you better prepare and decide whose lives are more expendable?

I don't blame you, but surely there are other ways to present a scenario with no good choices that don't hinge on the PC choosing who dies? In Vampire, each character has 2-3 convictions, values, that they uphold in order to maintain a tenuous grasp of their humanity. I'd have no problem coming up with a scenario where that person has the option of upholding their conviction but allowing their enemy to grow stronger or violate their conviction and make their enemy weaker. Either outcome is bad for the PC but that's the game they signed up for.
 

MGibster

Legend
To use the traditional trope, destroying the One Ring doesn't bring back the countless dead, make whole the mutilated, undo the economic devastation, and so forth. The happy ending was reserved solely for the tiny handful of PCs and their wealthy minions, not the countless widows & orphans impoverished by the war and political upheaval.

And even then, Frodo never fully recovered and had to retreat from the world with the elves.
 

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