A few weeks ago, Charlie posted a link to a story about a GM who caused a relatively minor (but characterful) action from a PC to have an effect later in the game. In that post, the player of the character in question described how much this story element improved his experience in that game. This quick moment that had nothing to do with mechanics, stats, or even the main plot provided a lasting impression for the player. Why? Because the character’s actions had actual consequences.
For most players that I’ve met, much of the reason for playing RPGs in the first place is the ability to make an impact on the story. If you’re in it for the combat, then that impact comes in the fights you win. If you game for the story, you want to be able to make your mark on the plot. I have met folks who are just there for the pizza and jokes, but they’re the minority. Most of us role the dice because we want to be part of the story. Otherwise, you may as well be reading a book.
There are a few ways players can affect the game. Given the scale at which many games take place, PCs are often offered the opportunity to take actions that have large consequences for the course of the story, or even of the world itself. Other actions may be large enough to affect the plot, but not big enough to change its larger course. Finally, the smallest, and most often overlooked category might not steer the events of a story, but can change the color.
We’ll cover these in the fashion of fast food joints everywhere.
You’ll likely know the actions with large consequences when you see them. They’re the ones that make everyone around the table sit back and say, “whoa.” When somebody unexpectedly slays the dragon, angers the alien overlord, or betrays the trusted ally, the effects should be felt long afterward.
With this group, the difficulty doesn’t usually come in noticing the moments that should have large consequences. If anything, the hard part can be figuring out what to do next. For those GMs that fall on the Planning end of the scale, actions of this scope may take the game “off the map.” In a great piece of advice I’m stealing from John Wick from Houses of the Blooded, which is full of these sort of events, I’d suggest taking a break. Get away from the table, and give yourself a moment to figure out the ramifications.
The players choose to make a deal with the bandits instead of fighting. They come up with the idea of looking for a sewer access to the secure facility. On a mistaken assumption, one PC punches a high-born young lady (no Charlie, we’re not going to let you live that down).
These are possibly the most common affects we see in our games. They’re sort of the bread and butter of gaming. Taken together, they create the cause and effect chain that propels our games forward.
In the drive to keep the games moving, though, it’s easy to forget that these relatively minor decisions (in comparison to the epic ones described above) can have long-term consequences too. If the merchant that sent the PCs to drive out the bandits isn’t satisfied with their solution, the party may have made an enemy even as they made allies of the bandits. It’s highly possible that Winifred, the aforementioned high-born young lady, will mistrust Charlie’s character for some time to come.
These could be the starship pilot flirting with the waitress, or the wizard levitating the boy out of the well. RPG sessions are full of moments that are just begging to be capitalized into greater consequences. It largely falls upon the GM to create an effects out of these actions that have more character than impact.
If you manage to get these fertile seeds to grow, however, your game will be better for it. For one thing, you’ll demonstrate that you’re paying attention. You’ll also weave the personalities of your characters into the story of your game. Finally, you’ll create a great incentive for such characterful behavior.
Of course, the lines between those categories aren’t set in stone. A seemingly minor choice can grow out of hand to have unanticipated consequences. Perhaps the wizard who saved the boy is later rescued in turn by the grateful townsfolk. Maybe the flirtatious starship pilot is later confronted by the alleged mother of his baby.
For instance, in our last game of Shadowrun, the party’s hacker rolled a critical failure on an attempt to get control of a security system. Instead of having his attempt foiled, I determined that he had drawn the attention of another intruder on the system. This brought the party into contact with a sort of organized crime strike team, who grew into recurring opponents for the remainder of the campaign; all from one botched skill roll.
In a way, a whole game can be seen as a series of consequences, stemming from an initial conflict. From this point of view, the GM’s whole job is to take the game from state to state, using the transitions of the effects of the players’ actions. Too often, though, we’re only thinking of the immediate consequences of those choices.
The Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer had a great series called “Keeping the Ball in the Air, or the Art of Consequences”, to which I’ll link below. I highly recommend reading both posts in the series, as they’re extremely helpful. He had great tips for staying mindful of consequences, including:
- Keep it Immediate
- Don’t Forget the Long Term
- Keep it Meaningful
For myself, I’d add:
- Take notes, you’ll never remember this stuff otherwise.
- Keep an open mind, since the appropriate consequence may not be obvious
- Don’t neglect the small stuff, because they can be the most effective.
Critically Consequential Conclusion
We GMs can often get caught up in moving the game along. Doing so, however, we can neglect powerful chances to capitalize on player actions. These moments are powerful opportunities to tie the characters into the stories and worlds we’re creating, which, at least for me, is the whole point.