Upping the Decision Point Ante
So, you have a promising encounter except that your heroes have nothing to do. How do you fix that? Obviously, you need to add decision points. Fortunately, that is pretty easy. Most decision points are created by sources of conflict, so you can either add new sources of conflict or have your existing sources of conflict do things to complicate the situation.
But not all conflicts are created equally. Some sources of conflict don’t really involve decisions. For example:
Dramatic Question: “can the heroes safely get the treasure”
Hook: “there is treasure and you want it”
Source of Conflict: “there is a wide pit blocking the path to the treasure”
A pit is a nice obstacle. Heroes can jump it, climb down one side and up the other, build a bridge, teleport, fly, they have lots of options. It is a nice, open-ended conflict. Lots of ways to handle it. It is still just one decision, but one with a lot of freedom. Now, imagine I add a locked steel gate on the other side. If the heroes are low-level enough or weak enough, their only option may be to pick the lock. Therefore, I haven’t added a decision point here. They have no obvious choice but to pick the lock. It is just an obstacle. Of course, at higher levels or with more tools, they may have more options. Remember that decision points only exist if the players THINK they have options.
Be aware also that adding options to an existing source of conflict doesn’t actually add decision points. If I add thick vines hanging over the pit or a secret door that allows the party to get around the pit, I haven’t added any decision points. They just have more obvious options to deal with the one decision point they have.
Most decision points should be focused on actions the heroes can take to resolve a conflict or pursue the dramatic question. It is important to make sure that at least some of the decisions the heroes have to make are about how they can bring about victory, not just about how to avoid defeat. That can often be tricky. The heroes should be resolving conflicts, not attempting to avoid being resolved by conflicts.
There is a special kind of decision point that needs to be mentioned: the dilemma. A dilemma occurs when a decision requires a hero to choose between multiple goals – usually a personal goal and the goal represented by the dramatic question. For example, suppose it turns out that the captive will not speak unless violently coerced. The party wants the information, but the party cleric is both lawful and good. In terms of the encounter, the decision to use torture or not use torture is pretty simple. However, adding in a personal goal (the goal to behave as a lawful and good person would) complicates that. In that case, the cleric must choose between getting the information and keeping to his vows. Dilemmas do not have to be about morality, they simply have to pit two things a character desperately wants against one another and force the player to choose.
Once you have decided that you need to add decision points to an encounter, things get pretty chaotic. You can either add new sources of conflict that create decisions or have existing sources of conflict take actions that force decisions. The more complex the encounter, the more you want to mix things up. In point of fact, building an encounter is a lot like building a dungeon. You have a start point and an end point and you want to put rooms full of encounters between the beginning and the end. Some of the rooms might offer multiple exits. Others simply force the PCs to confront obstacles and decide how to deal with them. Some dungeons are mazes that need to be navigated. Others are linear obstacle courses. Many have elements of both. A really well-built, complex NCNI encounter can actually be mapped like a dungeon (or a flowchart if you prefer because you’re BORING!).
Finally, remember that if you want the players to know they have an option, you have to tell them. Players are stupid and confused by subtlety. A secret door does not, generally, count as an option unless the players have a compelling reason to search for one. I am not saying that you need to tell your PCs to search for secret doors. That’d be pretty dumb considering the word “secret” in the name. What I’m saying is that the secret door should always be the THIRD option, never the SECOND when you’re trying to create decision points. That way, heroes who never think to search for secret doors still have a choice, but the players who do search find an easier way to their goal.
Ongoing Example: The Chase
Watch how complicated this can get! This, right here is the real meat and potatoes of encounter building. This is where the magic happens. Pay attention. This will be pretty frenetic.
My primary source of conflict is the desperate assassin who will do anything to escape. But that alone doesn’t lend itself to any actions other than just running after him. Right away, I need something the players can actively DO to close the gap and gain some ground. If I’m chugging along running away and heroes are chugging along behind me, what can they do to close the gap. And I don’t mean what might CERTAIN heroes be able to do (a wizard can throw a grease spell, sure). Well, the heroes can push harder than me, right? They can sprint. Like Will Smith chasing down the cephalapoid on foot, right? Just crank. Go all out. But I can’t let them do that all the time, right? Or else there is no decision. So, first thing is that I’m going to give them some kind of limited ability to sprint. Maybe they need a clear, straight run to sprint. And maybe sprinting too much will exhaust them. I will have to tell them about this option as soon as the chase starts so they know it exists. Otherwise, they might assume they are running at top speed all the time anyway and not bother.
Fine. So that is one thing they can do during the chase. But that isn’t enough. When to sprint is really just an extended single decision point. I’ve seen movies, what else might players do to get an advantage. Well, if I am running through crowded streets (I’ve decided some of the streets are crowded), someone chasing me could go for the high ground. Rooftop chases are classic. So, a hero can climb up onto the roofs of the city to keep an eye on me and to have more open ground. Of course, the acrobatic hero will need to make jumps and aerial maneuvers and risks falling, injuring himself, and being taken out of the chase, but that’s the way it goes.
What else? Well, you know that thing in movies where it looks like the crook has gotten away and then, all of the sudden, the cop’s partner who disappeared at the beginning of the chase and we forgot about, suddenly that guy bursts out and tackles the crook? Well, that is damned cool. Why can’t we give THAT option. How could a player pull that off? Well, in order to take a short cut, the player has to be able to predict where the assassin is going to go. Maybe the assassin is taking off in a particular direction, perhaps toward a crime-ridden, dangerous neighborhood where he knows he has friends to hide him. Someone who knows the city and makes a skill check (like Local Knowledge or Streetwise) might be able to guess where he is going. Let’s assume the players know the city since @Clampclontoller didn’t say they don’t. That guy could slip away at the beginning of the chase, navigate a shortcut, and… well, if there is a chokepoint along the route… he could spring a trap there. So, let’s suppose the districts of the city have walls or rivers or something between them. If the assassin wants to get to Crimetown, he has to go over the Crimetown Bridge. If someone can beat him there, they get a chance to tackle him.
Now, that is not something the players might think off. So, if none of them asks about it in the first round of the chase, I will call for the Street Knowledge Local Wise whatever check on the second round and, anyone who succeeds gets the prediction (he’s probably heading to Crimetown where he might have friends to hide or defend him, there’s only one good way using the Crimetown Bridge). At that point, the players might ask about shortcuts or alternate routes and, if they don’t, well they can still chase the guy.
So, now we have chasing with sprinting, stalking on the roof tops, and outflanking the guy. But those are all really just one decision. Three different approaches to bring about the same thing. Plus, the players now have enough elements to play with that they could be more clever. For example, if they get someone on the rooftops, they could drop back and stop chasing, hoping the rooftop guy can stalk him stealthily. Or if one or two of them discover the alternate route, the rest could drop back and hope the shortcut pans out. Hell, they could all take the alternate route. I could call the encounter done at this point and it’d be okay (as long as I resolve it in three die rolls or so), but let’s not stop there. One decision with a few obvious paths and a bunch of clever alternatives is neat, but lets try to drag this out. We’re still playing with just one main source of conflict: the assassin who wants desperately to escape. Can we add some more?
Well, damn straight we can. We have a whole city to play with. The city is full of sources of conflict. A crowded market that slows down anyone who is trying to force their way through the crowd, for example. Let’s say the chase starts and immediately the assassin tries to lose the heroes in the crowded market. There are lots of ways any ground-based chasers might clear a way through the crowd. If the assassin is slowed down, but the heroes can do something to mitigate the crowd (a strong character ‘clearing a path’; a charismatic character screaming orders to move or using a bluff to scare the crowd away; a wizard firing spells into the crowd to injure, kill, or disperse citizens (don’t look at me, some players think like that); and so on).
But the market keeps people from sprinting. So, the whole chase can’t happen in the market. What if the chase actually passes through a couple of different neighborhoods like an obstacle course (an obstacle course, imagine that *wink*). So, we start off and the guy bolts into the market. The PCs can follow, try to gain the rooftops, or have a chance to guess his route and cut him off. Then, those following can mitigate the crowd while those above close some distance. Now, we’ll go to a nice a straight run. A connecting sidestreet, not too crowded with few outlets. Followers can sprint if they want to try to close the distance. Maybe a follower decides to take a shot with a ranged weapon (losing a lot of ground) or throw a spell in the clear street (also losing a lot of ground). A good spell or difficult ranged attack could end the chase. Then, well, maybe our assassin gets desperate.
The next street is a work street filled with laborers unloading carts. As the assassin runs past, he draws a long knife and rakes a cart horse in the flank. The horse tears free of its harness, panics, and charges down the street, injuring people in the crowd and barrelling toward the PCs. Maybe the PCs try to run past it, but maybe someone tries to control the horse to protect the crowd, taking themselves out of the race to do the right thing. Or maybe someone gets the idea to jump onto the horse (or another one) and use the horse to keep up the chase. We won’t mention that idea explicitly. Something a clever player might think of.
Now, we’ll add a short interlude of chasing down a winding side street with no real obstacles or diversions, but no straight line of sight. The assassin just keeps running. No one can really do anything here. It is more of a pause in the action. But it gives the players a chance to think. I’ve been demanding a bunch of quick decisions from them. A few seconds where they can sit back and listen to some flavor text helps keep them involved.
Now, we have the bridge to Crimetown. And this is a big spot. The shortcut hero gets their one chance to stop the Chase. And then everyone is funneled down the bridge. The bridge is another nice straightaway, but a little too crowded to make ranged attacks or spells, but it will let people sprint and close the distance again. More importantly, the river is too wide to jump. Why? Because the guy on the roof has been doing nothing but keeping up with the assassin, making occasional acrobatic-type checks at my direction. I need to get him down. Remember that “three die rolls without a decision point?” He ran his three actions out and now he needs to come down. Remember that episode of the Tick where they “run out of rooftops?” There you go.
Meanwhile, if they don’t end the chase here (and it is possible they will), then the assassin will punish them. Suppose he does the horse trick again, only worse. He slashes someone and shoves them over the rail into the river. The person thrashes in the water, but the stunned citizens just gawp and shout. No one jumps in. Even if the PCs did not do anything to stop the horse, they will likely save the hapless innocent.
Beyond the bridge, we’ll put another open street and a straightaway. Let people try to sprint again, give someone an opportunity to get up onto the Crimetown rooftops, let someone take a shot with a bow or a spell.
And then, we’ll go for the home stretch. Much more in his element, the assassin bolts into the back alleys and he knows the alleys. If he has any sort of decent lead at this point, he is going to try to evade. This isn’t really a decision point. It is more of an obstacle. He’ll try the old turn a corner, then dart into a hiding place and hope everyone bolts past. If that succeeds, he escapes. If not, the heroes turn around and can pick up the chase once more. Someone on the roof might have an easier time spotting him, call out his location, or do the sneaky stalker thing.
Then, one more street with a thick crowd for the PCs to dodge through (criminals, urchins, and beggars). If the PCs don’t catch the assassin here, he ducks into the Scumm and Villainy Bar and Grill, into the secret room, and the bartender tries to cover for him. But that’s another encounter.
Now, there is an encounter LOADED with decision points.