Choice Points (and Choke Points) in Games

So, I’ll start by saying that this post is more in the nature of a rumination and exploration of thought than it is an attempt to say anything definitive about choice points. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I consider some of the games I regularly play.

One thing that is talked about a lot in RPGs is the time it takes to do something. We talk about speeding up combat by rolling attack and damage dice at the same time, or pre-rolling a bunch of initiative checks for the NPCs. But the act of rolling the dice is a very simple process for most players and even in dice-pool games the tallying takes a few seconds at most.

But adding mechanical choices at each juncture seems to be a larger culprit. Much like a game of Magic: the Gathering, it seems as if some games create a scenario where an action can set off a cascade of following effects triggered on the part of both players and NPCs. 4th Edition D&D had specific, measurable problems with this cascade and it was addressed by the designers in later books and in the creation of 5th Edition. Even games like Savage Worlds (“Fast, Furious, Fun!”) suffer from this to a certain extent once certain edges get into play (though they have started to fix the Shaken issue).

Ultimately, these mechanical choices create logjams where players feel the need to always contemplate an optimal action – because losing is bad – and figure out how to compete with the scenario at hand.

This can be complicated by the scenario as well. In the upcoming organize play event for Dungeons and Dragons Attack Wing there are 7 tokens on the board which launch ambush attacks at all models in range each turn. I expect games to be falteringly slow in this scenario as everyone tries to minimize their exposure by analyzing and eyeballing each movement before committing to anything.

Choice is a good thing – to a point – but at some point it seems that offering too many reactions, caveats, and “stuff that can happen” just ends up reinforcing the RPG as Math Problem issue that I so often deride.

Not to only speak ill of games with many choice points. Probably my favorite miniatures game of all time, Battletech, has very few choice points each round (~2 or 3) but these each include a number of traps for the player which can bog a game down into painful oblivion. Movement leads to players counting hexes and turns over and over again, declaring fire leads to more hex counting and enemy targeting while also including the need to debate how much heat you are willing to generate vs. damage potential.

A fellow blogger recently posted about playing OGRE with 12-year-olds and made the comment that 12-year-olds are not burdened by the same analysis paralysis as the 40 year old generation. I was saddened and chastised by this. Because I don’t know that if I suggest that we all “play like 12-year-olds” that will really help much. I suppose what really worries me here is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear point where you can say, “too many choices! Game no play so good!”

I have found that for encouraging roleplaying and deep character delving, the best games move choices out of a purely mathematical realm and have hidden information. In my own experience I get more mileage out of rules-light, diceless system like Amber or a “old-fashioned” system like ACKS or Star Wars D6 than I do out of games like the new Fantasy Flight Star Wars with its narrative dice creating exponential mechanical choices every time they are rolled. Age of Rebellion nearly put me off Star Wars altogether I was so frustrated running it as a GM. Honestly, being the GM in a game with a lot of mechanical choices is like being a single player in a boardgame with long turns. Each player gets to have their moment and only has to worry about one thing but the GM sits through 4-6 turns of soooooo manyyyyyy choooooiiiiiices that you eventually just want to pull your hair out and start running amok.

Funny thing. I’m one of those, like, 6 people in the world who love the game Diplomacy and think that you should play it with your friends. Because it’s a great game that really does something innovative and shouldn’t be taken seriously in terms of ending friendships. (Does that really happen? Really?) I like it because even though turns are long and there are many choices to make from the diplomatic side, there are very few actual mechanical choices, which constrains the action to a manageable set of interactions. I also like it because that diplomatic side really involves talking to other humans and has a time limit. There are consequences if you don’t make it back to the board with fully written orders in time. I’ve played a lot of Diplomacy. I’ve never won a game. I’ve been lied to so many times I couldn’t even count them. I’ve been taken out of games early and nearly pulled off wins a couple of times only to see it all go away in an instant. And I don’t care. Because winning is awesome and the thrill of winning is awesome. The tension of a close game in the final rounds is great. But when it’s over, as long as everyone played fair and didn’t cheat – then you shrug, let your friend who always seems to get to play France pat you on the shoulder, and move on with your day. Because the game itself is fun. Diplomacy is inherently fun (for me at least). And it has very few mechanical options. The rulebook is tiny and consists more of examples than actual rules.

I’m not sure if this rumination makes sense to anyone outside my head. Ultimately, it’s just something I continue to struggle with in my quest to just have fun with this hobby I’ve spent most of my life with. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I just need to give it all up and just go climb rocks for a while or join a gym and see what “normal” people do with their Sundays.

As always, thanks for reading.

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3 responses

  1. > > > In my own experience I get more mileage out of rules-light, diceless system like Amber or a “old-fashioned” system like ACKS or Star Wars D6 than I do out of games like the new Fantasy Flight Star Wars with its narrative dice creating exponential mechanical choices every time they are rolled. < < <

    I am going to challenge you on this idea about rules light or heavy to shift your paradigm for a moment. And I would like to make that shift to communications networks at the table. I am referring to communication networks like The Star Network, The Y-Network, The Circle Network, and The ComCon Network and their relation to how the designers of game systems privilege and favour any given one. (So, yes, I am not saying I am presenting a different conclusion that the one you’ve reached, just explaining it without relying on or expressing any particular game bias.)

    In this way a rules heavy game can have that “old school” feel some tout. And, by the same token, a rules light game can deteriorate into a “crawl” from an exciting start. There may be less empirical evidence for the latter supposition because a rule-happy munchkin likely avoids games like Amber, assiduously. This brings to mind an anecdote based on self-censoring.

    I think the type of communications network a system of play (yes, GM=System) engages to carry the game is more responsible for either over-burdening it or unencumbering it than any RAW. It might also suggest that there is some basis for the nostalgia of “old school” games because we were all closer to “12 year olds” at the time those were first popular – and by that we can understand we were less complicated and self-complicating players regardless our in-game role (including as GM).

    Just a thought, Mike. If I am right, it may be a matter of the communications style of the people with whom you play (their play style) rather than the particular game itself – though it will influence it along narrow lines. Finding a communications network solution points to that graphic I shared with you a year ago, in which I graphed players within a 4-box grid. (I could never get that completed, by the way.) It’s not always a question of “not playing with assholes.”

    1. My thoughts here also reflect on the ideas you put forward in your previous post The Work/Theme Dichotomy in Games

  2. Mike, as an aside, have you put a copy of this book on your shelf at home? http://amzn.to/1MlJoYw I think you will like it. Within its scope it discusses RPGs in a sociological context – which is where I get my ideas and engrossment, my joy, in a game. It’s heavy on communications by/from/within the game. I am enjoying this.

    Joe Laycock is the new Gary Alan Fine, IMHO. Do check it out. Beats hell out of hobby history rehashes.

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