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.
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.
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.
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.