On Clarity of Consequence

What is it that is forgotten in giving players agency?

Drance over at Once More Unto the Breach! has raised the question, what about consequences?

Well, I'll tell you what about consequences!

I'll avoid the trite and trival comments like 'stories and games need conflict to produce drama' blahblah blah. Real first semester stuff.

It's this very idea that is the essence behind 'five minute adventuring day' 'overpowered wizards' and 'class balance' et. al. All these things simply spring from a desire for the game to retain conflict.

Unsurprisingly they are a bad solution, because they are addressing the symptoms and not the cause. Addressing them in game design makes running a game easier, because it removes the tools the players have for resolving problems.

This seems positive, until you realize that it reduces every problem to one that they have to use combat to resolve or forces them to resolve problems outside the context of gameplay.

Here are my maxims:
  • It is impossible to take action without causing consequence. 
  • Many options for adventure should be provided to the players.
  • The choice to pursue one option causes others unaddressed to continue to evolve on their own. 
  • There is always fallout and change from the actions taken to address adventure options.

Simple, eh?

The challenge comes in maintaining agency. You want your players to play the game and have consequences for failure. You want them to be able to make poor choices. But you also want everyone to enjoy themselves and feel that they are engaged in a fundamentally fair activity, no "Rocks fall, everyone dies! HA!"

This is a sticky wicket. A challenge even for the best Dungeon Masters.

My guiding principles for this activity is making sure the players understand the context of the decision. It is not necessary to tell them what to do. It is necessary to clearly frame the game in such a way that allows them to know what they have to do and what tools they have to do with it.

Read on for some real-play examples on how to handle this.

Two examples

Failure: In a previous game, the campaign was framed as creating and helping a new colony survive in a hostile land. Upon landing the first thing that happened was they discovered that the previous colony was destroyed. No one knew anything about why or how this happened. They were told by the locals that it was foolish to build a colony on the coast because sea demons would destroy it. Eight months into the game they visited the destroyed colony, found some iridescent scales, wanton destruction, and no signs of life. 

That was enough for them, back to the dungeon!

Of course with the anger and bitterness when the new colony was destroyed! It wasn't fair! Wailing! Gnashing of teeth!

This was a consequence of their choice. They showed up every week and dicked around in dungeons. When I pointed this out, they said "How could we have done anything to stop this?!"

I said in response, "Cleric divination spells, presenting the evidence found to any NPC either of native cultures or in town, asking me directly 'how can we find out more information', consulting a sage."

They choose not to make it a priority because they were more interested in doing other things. So they experienced the consequences for that failure. (Previously discussed here.)

Uncertain Future: This same situation is happening again in my current game! When starting this game, I asked my players "What type of campaign would you like to play?" The response was that they would like to play a game with some measure of domain management and they wanted it to have titans.

So to summarize, they have the ability to manage the domain. They take actions which draw aggression towards their domain. And when they show up decisions are made based not on what are the consequences of my domain management, but on what they want to explore this week.

I wondered to myself, "Should I continue to let them not address these issues? Or should I point out the eventual consequences of their choices?" In the end, I decided it was important that they be making an informed choice. I contextualized their slaughter of the representative of the titan and the likely consequences thereof. I also clarified the fact that if something is going to be done or accomplished, that it needs to happen at the table on game day -- that email and our obsidian portal are for discussion and planning and the resolution of off-camera side activities. I again informed them of their in and out game resources for gathering information about the consequences of various options and suggested that discussion about the likely value of each action be an informed one using those resources rather then just making the decision in the dark.

In Summary
Players tend to prefer to go off their perception of events instead of engaging in a dialogue either in or out of game discussing the actual consequences of events.

It is important as a DM that you contextualize these events proactively and remind the players of the many options they have to acquire information about the actual consequences possible from various choices.


  1. I'll have to remember this and pass it on to our GM as well. Enjoyed the post! =)

  2. Before you know your players well, it's probably good practice to be more explicit than you think is needed. Kind of like that rule of thumb to drop every clue in three different ways (I forget where that is from).

    Sometimes I even go as far as to say things like "if you approach the slippery ledge, you will have a 2 in 6 chance of falling" though that is probably more than most people need. Or remind people explicitly "you know people are still being abducted in the gloomy forest, are you sure you want to hunt the dragon in the wasteland?". The trick of course is making sure it doesn't seem like you are leading them. It helps to explain several consequences no matter what they do (non-comprehensively).

    1. Brendan, I think "if you approach the slippery ledge, you will have a 2 in 6 chance of falling" is the perfect comment.

    2. It might seem like giving the players too much information at first, but I've had great success with being so up-front about risks.

  3. I also left the following comment over on Drance's post. If people have techniques for managing multiple "plots" moving forward independently of PC action, I would love to hear them, because it is easier to say than it is to do. Begin repost of comment:

    The hard thing about this is, I think, connected to the idea of opportunity cost. There will be N possible things that the PCs can choose, but they can really only do one of them, so the opportunity cost of option 1 is that options 2..N remain unattended for however long it takes to do #1.

    In reality, N is infinite, but that is clearly impossible to model meaningfully. So the problem for the referee is how many balls to keep in the air? For example, I have several event lines going on in my current game, but currently this is only about 3-5 different things, depending on how you count. For example, in addition to the main dungeon exploration, most obviously there is a necromancer's stronghold to the west that is at war with a demonic incursion, but there are a few less obvious things progressing independently of the PCs as well.

    More than 3-5 would require some more sophisticated tracking system, and more work every session (since you need to think about and update what happens in every different "plot" periodically if you want the trade-off that the adventurers experience in deciding to go after one rather than another to be anything more than handwaving).

    So I guess the question is, what is the best value of N (practically speaking) to model a living world? And what is the best way to do that given limited referee time and resources?

    1. Whatever is least boring really.

      Very simply, any previous thread is restoreable, because they are all foreshadowed. The better you track your campaign history, the more dynamic your game becomes.

      It isn't about realistic simulation. It's about conflict and drama.

  4. Clarity of consequences is different from clear consequences. Nice post! Players may realize, based on in-game observations, that some of their experiences are the consequences of their choices. As you've indicated the GM should make that apparent.

    When players make choices the consequences aren't always apparent. This introduces risk to the equation, and builds tension.

    Great ideas to live by as a GM. Thanks again!

  5. First of all, I'm honored to have inspired a post here and on other blogs! Good to be a part of the community. As for your post:

    Players tend to prefer to go off their perception of events instead of engaging in a dialogue either in or out of game discussing the actual consequences of events.

    Exactly. Many players tend to only consider their own goals and will usually do whatever they need to accomplish those goals, without considering all the NPCs around them. Indeed, most players will roll right over the potential considerations of said NPCs in their drive to find treasure, complete quests, etc.

    I wonder, is this because players don't really "see" the many NPCs, but rather just the lone GM sitting in a seat before them? I know that roleplaying is supposed to involve imagination, and players should be imagining the GM's world teaming with NPCs. But some folks might not really understand the need to remember all those abstract concepts called NPCs and their existence. In addition, some players may just feel that they are superior to all NPCs and therefore need not worry about their reactions to PC actions. But no matter who the player is, once those NPCs start confronting the PCs in light of PC actions, they will start worrying about consequences! It's up to a good GM to make sure those consequences appear.

  6. This may be a long one as it involves an example from play, but it shows quite well how the consequences the player expects differ so much from what the GM provides, based on the reactions of a multitude of NPCs. Player A needs some information, so he bullies and cajoles the information from a hospital orderly. Hospital orderly provides information, as it made sense for him to do so, player A had an important PC and as such was to be feared and respected.

    NPC A, who also worked at the hospital found out about the leak of information, and when quizzing the orderly found about the bullying of Player A. He then took the time to confront Player A's character, and when the truth was found out, had player A's character struck off, and barred from the hospital.

    player A was a bit cross, thinking that he'd done such a good job of intimidating the orderly that he should have gotten away with it. the only consequence he expected was that the orderly would have rebuked for giving up the goods, never that it would have come back to bite him on the ass.

    I tried more than once to get them used to the idea of bad things happening to characters that do bad things, and it did sink in eventually. Most of the players never had a problem with that at all, and were always thinking about what would happen to them as a result of their actions.

    I know this is small scale compared to some of the problems you're discussing, but when it came to the possible consequences, I never thought I would need to spell them out; you bully someone who isn't a child, and most of the time, they'll do something about it. And in my head, spelling out the consequences, when they're not just a statistic provability, seems like spoiling the game a little.

    1. This reads to me like lesson teaching and mind reading. It may not be, but that's how I parse your story.

      In play, I present such situations as:

      "You may leave and get the information some other way, you may attempt to intimidate the orderly, but she will likely report you if confronted by her supervisor."


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