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On Providing Choice to the PCs

I started my 5th Edition D&D campaign last week and am very excited for it. It’s been a while (well, two years) since I started a new campaign, but, more importantly, I’ve invited a bunch of close friends to join me weekly on Roll20, with shorter hours (more on this later), which will make it very easy to keep going on a regular basis. With a consistent gaming schedule, I find I can focus my efforts on prepping and running the game instead of worrying about whether enough players will show.

But for me, running a campaign isn’t just about gaming. It’s about taking an opportunity to flex my storytelling muscles at the same time I’m having fun in a game. I can’t help but use the opportunity for running a game to find the story components and engage with those as much as possible. And it’s even more important in a game like D&D, where the story elements aren’t as pronounced as, say, in a Dungeon World, Fiasco, or FATE game (which are more rooted in story out of the gate).

So if I’m taking the effort to learn and explore storytelling in my 5th edition game, there’s no better place to start than at the beginning. And having just begun my game, I want to identify all the places I can get the team working on these elements, and it starts with PC introductions. But it’s not enough just to make the PCs’ various histories important to the game’s present — you need to make it matter with choice. Choice is one of the fundamental aspects of storytelling in that it fundamentally creates characters — when characters make a choice, they show their true colors and instincts. And the harder the choice, the more interesting the story. Does Luke join Darth? Does Frodo keep the Ring? Does Neo take the red or blue pill? Without choice, story is nothing.

For the first session, I came up with a list of choices for each PC (one each) to make that will inform their own personalities and loyalties. Each choice had something to do with the old world versus the new world. In the campaign introduction, the group has been recruited by Lord Silverhand of Waterdeep, but the PCs also have their own factions and other personal allegiances — will they turn their back on their old world connections or move forward into their new futures? Will they accept their new responsibilities blindly or do they second guess why they’ve been hired? How will they approach this new mission in light of their personal backgrounds? These are all interesting choices that give color to characters.

The best games and campaigns are rooted in choice. One of the most classic RPG campaigns of all time — Masks of Nyarlathotep for Call of Cthulhu — opens by giving the PCs multiple choices on how to approach the game with a large handful of clues and information. Out of the gate the PCs have agency to determine their own direction in the game and I believe this set of choices (which ultimately follows the group throughout the game) helps cement the campaign as one of the all-time greats.

As a game master, it’s your job to set the tone of your game — the earlier, the better. Yes, we’re playing out of the box 5th edition D&D, but we’re also playing in my game, and I like stories, the bigger, the better. I don’t want to just crawl through the dungeons or wilderness and not give opportunity to let the story be about the characters and their choices. Just giving the PCs these introductory choices — just one quick choice along with one scene bringing them into the world — set the tone and gave each player something to latch onto. I think it was a good start.

I’m interested in all the ways we can actively bring storytelling elements into our RPGs. What other ways can we allow players and PCs to make choices?

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