I got the impression that Brett wants more feedback on his recent discussions, and I think I have something for him this time around.
So, the episode is titled “No Right Answer,” and, in fact, the episode description specifically states that, “when you have any encounter, there are quite nearly unlimited options for how you will solve it [emphasis added],” but, when Brett and Sean actually began to explore this topic, it began to seem like, more realistically (and according to how the hosts framed the conversation), most encounters present two or three reasonable solutions.
Or do they?
At one point, Brett feared that he was rambling, and he may have been. And, if he was, I think it was because this topic would have benefitted from a grounding in what we might define as three different modes of play.
Here are the three I propose:
Railroad. In a railroad, which Brett specified he was not talking about, there is not only a right answer but, of course, only one answer. Any GM running a railroad is going to have to construct the adventure to remove every option but one or, at the very least, pickle every encounter in a quantum soup.
Choose Your Own Adventure. In these the GM predicts the most likely choices that players are going to make and consequently prepares for them. This is when, as Brett and Sean suggest, two or three most likely choices will emerge. But this, of course, is misleading. As Brett and Sean themselves know, every GM has experienced many absolute “gamebreakers” of player choices that the GM never could have anticipated. So, is there truly no “right answers?” Of course there aren’t any right answers! But the nature of Brett’s discussion would suggest that there are preferred answers, and those answers are determined by the GM, by what the GM has prepared according to the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure mode of adventure design, and also because of a general footlight sense for what would be most satisfying and dramatic according to the narrative – and according to the GM. It may be that Brett conforms to the “director” mode of GMing, in which he is constructing what he considers to be a compelling story – with actors who aren’t always cooperative. Many times I heard him talk about “dragging” a PC to this location or heavily framing the available choices a character might take by presenting a menu of three. No right choices? Perhaps, but it definitely feels like, according to this GM, there often are three preferred choices.
Sandbox. So, I don’t think Brett and Sean were thinking about this mode, at all – at least in reference to this topic. A sandbox relies heavily on yet another mode or style of play, in which very little narrative is constructed before the game begins, but locations most certainly are. In this mode, PCs choose a location to explore (incidentally, locations often also are presented as a menu of two or three or more options), and “story” happens as the PCs interact with the material in those locations. Another name for this mode is, of course, emergent storytelling. It’s in this mode of play that I believe we most often see, as Brett proposed, a narrowing of options. As PCs interact with their environments, “uncovering” and manifesting NPCs and worldbuilding events, and as PCs begin to pursue their own agendas, the range of choices narrows to the point where PCs have to act on some obvious ones or something dramatic may happen to upset their own plans.
There are two more considerations, of course, which I saw begin to pop up in the chat during the recording of the show, which involve just how much improvisation – reacting specifically to explicit or implicit tells of the players – the GM is willing or capable of entertaining and just how far “sourcing the table” is allowed to go, through giving agency to the players to actually intrude significant narrative elements into the emerging storyline. In both of these examples, there is the opportunity for the GM to abandon entirely whatever metaplot had been considered before play. In these instances, the more important choices actually are those of the GM, who is reacting and responding to the actions of the PCs during play, and not those of the players themselves, who are making choices in awareness or ignorance of what may now be thought of as just one pre-considered rough draft of what actually now is an emerging plot.
My point? I do believe that there are “no right choices,” but I also believe that this very much… depends on the mode of play that is being adopted by any given gaming table. Some games allow only one narrative choice, and the only actual “choices” of those are in how the players engage with the mechanics to resolve each railroaded encounter. Other games heavily frame two or three or more most reasonable choices, thereby implicitly encouraging players to be “good sports” and to lean into the intentions of the GM’s game scenario. And other games quite truly offer “unlimited” choices, as long as those choices accord with the genre and metaphysic of the game experience being explored at the table.