This is RPG-ology #47: Left or Right, for October 2021.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Left or Right?, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].
The subject matter of this article was reproduced in part in RPG-ology #8: The Illusion of Choice in July, 2018. Although that was recalling this, the articles are substantially different.
You descend into the darkness, the light of your flickering torch creating grotesque living shadows on the rough walls. The hewn stone steps are uneven, shifted perhaps by the years; but carefully you approach and finally reach the bottom, a passage not traveled by man nor elf since time out of mind—yet traveled by something.
The passage leads you forward twenty, thirty, forty feet, and then comes to a “T.” You must decide. You’ve no knowledge of where these tunnels travel. You have heard the tales of fabulous riches, but also know that death could lie in ambush a few feet away. It hangs on your choice.
“Left or right?” The dungeon master’s voice pulls you from one reality to another. You’ve got to make a choice; and as far as you can tell, there’s nothing different about going one way or the other—and yet you know that it is different, that what you decide right here is going to change the entire story from this point forward.
“Um—I don’t know. Which way do you want to go guys?” Not much point in asking—they don’t know any more than you do. Pick one; flip a coin, for all the difference it makes. Yet it makes all the difference, as the Robert Frost poem suggests.
Our adventures are very much about choices like these. We come to a fork in the road, or a side tunnel or door in the dungeon; or we grab a spaceship and take off for another planet. At these moments we have to decide which way to go, without having any information at all. No one knows what adventures lie in either direction.
Well, that’s not quite true. There is one guy at the table who knows what awaits and can possibly guess the outcome of tonight’s session based on this choice. He’s the dork with the glasses sitting on the other side of those upright sheets of cardboard that hide the map from your prying eyes—the referee. Now if only you could ask him which way to go…
But that’s no help. It’s the old story, The Lady or the Tiger? You know the one. The Roman soldier and the gentlewoman fell in love, but the love was forbidden; so when it was discovered, the soldier was sentenced to face the choice. He would enter the arena, and before him would be two doors. Behind one is a beautiful young woman who would immediately become his bride, and they would live together thereafter. The other held back a very hungry, very angry tiger who would certainly kill him horribly. No one knew which was which—except that the gentlewoman had a great deal of influence, and managed to discover which was which. So when her lover appeared before the crowd, his eyes went to her, and with a signal she told him which door to select. Without hesitation he stepped to it and pulled it open.
And in the classic telling, the story ends there; the author never tells us what came out. Instead he asks which we think it was. After all, if the tiger bursts forth, the lady must watch the love of her life be torn to bits, and live with that memory for the rest of her days; but if it’s the lady, she must see him wed to another, and watch as he spends his life with someone else, not her. So it is not easy to know which she would choose. And perhaps he should not be so confident in her choice—but perhaps his confidence is that whichever it is, it is what she would have it be, and therefore best for their love.
If this story has a moral for gamers, it’s don’t ask the non-player characters which way you should go. The guy who makes their decisions knows what lies in every direction, and you’ve put him in a bind such that he’s going to have to give you bad information as often as not. But there’s also a lesson here for referees, if we can find it.
If you’re the referee, this question will be asked, and you’re going to have to answer it. For you the job is tougher. You have knowledge the players lack, and yet cannot use that knowledge as the basis for your answer. Or can you? Maybe you can. Like the lady, you have the power to choose what you want to have happen, for good or ill. If you use your knowledge judiciously, the players can’t know which way you’re steering them, or even if you’re steering them, at any given moment. They can only follow your advice or reject it. You can send them to the easy way or the hard, as it suits the needs of the game.
But maybe you can do something more.
Ron Edwards sometimes talks about what he calls the moving clue. This is an idea that can save games, especially mystery and puzzle games, when the player characters need to find certain information in order to arrive at the truth. In most such games, the referee would have decided who knows what, and wait for the players to make the rounds and ask the right questions. Thus it might be essential for them to ask the gardener about the night of the murder, because he saw the master leave the house around four o’clock. Problem is if they never talk to the gardener or don’t ask him the right question, they don’t get that critical piece of data and can’t solve the case. The story fails.
The moving clue solves this problem elegantly. In designing the scenario, you separate the information the characters must discover from the sources who will reveal it. Now we have it as essential that the characters discover that the master left the house around four, and we know that one of the household servants knows this. But it doesn’t matter whether they talk to the gardener (“I saw him pull out onto the street”), because whichever one they question will have the answer, whether it’s the chauffeur (“I asked if he wanted me to drive”), the butler (“He wanted his valise”), the maid (“I was tidying up in the drawing room”), or the cook (“He grabbed tea a bit early, and I was surprised to see him go out the back door to the garage”). But they don’t all know that he left—only the one that the characters ask.
And it seems to me that you can do this at another level entirely. We can rethink the structures of our worlds, the way we design and build them, by understanding when choice should and should not control destiny.
You probably do many of your scenarios the way I do quite a few of mine. Draw a map, mark each room or area with a letter (I use letters, no particular reason for that—sometimes with subscripts or double letters), and write up a key to go with it saying what’s in each place and what happens when the characters enter. Sure, I do it all at once—but in the end, I’ve got a carefully-laid floor plan and key, and the hope that my players will come through it in pretty much the sequence for which it was designed. But players surprise you—they go left where you were certain they would go right, find the back way in that you wanted them to use coming out, hit the enemy forces from behind. The best laid plans are subject to the whims of choice, and uninformed choice at that.
But consider doing it this way. Draw a map with interconnected rooms, but don’t label them. Write up a number of room descriptions (you don’t need the dimensions—they’re on the map—just the contents), and give each description a letter. Put them in the order in which you want them to be opened. Now when the game starts, let the players agonize over their choices—left or right, this door or the one at the end of the hall. Whenever they make a choice, mark the map. Just run the descriptions in the order they are on the paper, without worrying about the layout of the complex. Suddenly the choices only seem to matter; they don’t really matter—the characters will go through all the encounters in the order you’ve prescribed, wherever they choose to go.
You probably don’t want to let them know that this is what you’re doing; they would think that you’ve taken their choice away from them, and in a sense you have. But in another sense, you haven’t taken anything away from them that matters. They still have to decide how to handle each encounter, what to do in each room they enter. The important decisions are still entirely in their hands. All you’ve done is made it more difficult for them to derail the adventure—getting to the end at the wrong moment, missing the room with the vital equipment or information. Events will now happen in the order you’ve designed, not in the randomized sequence created by uninformed player choices. Like the moving clue, these become moving encounters. And don’t do it all the time. The players aren’t going to catch on to this for a long time, but once they do you lose something. They will no longer wrestle with each of these choices, because the choices have no meaning—they’re just color in the story, like the grotesque shadows in the flickering torchlight. For most players, you can’t let them know that those choices don’t matter, that whichever way they go takes them to the same place. So don’t do it all the time. Don’t let them see the pattern. But try it for one level, or one section, or one adventure. Even if you would never do it again, you will see something about how you mold the reality you present, and how you can shape it to suit you whenever necessary.
For those of you who know Ron, I’m sure this idea is not something he would recommend. For him, the moving clue is a way of giving more control to the players; here, it gives more control to the referee. But in essence, it’s the use of the same tool to achieve a different outcome. The objective is still the same: ensure that that which is needed first is found first, and that which should be delayed is delayed. The application is different, but the technique is the same.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an espionage/commando scenario to work up for Multiverser in which this just might be an elegant solution to some complex problems.