We’re teaching a magic trick! There are five doors in the chamber, one leads to the next part of the story. Your players are seeking out this door, and are hard-pressed to make the choice. They use deductive reasoning, and at the end of the time limit, they choose door number three. Correct choice! The party continues and finishes the adventure, save the damsel, get crowned as royalty, etc. The adventure ends, everyone is happy. But what if they chose the other doors? Death, destruction, banishment, or worse, right? Here’s the trick: they all led to the same place.
We call this the illusion of choice in games. In RPG’s such as Mass Effect and The Witcher, they cleverly hide these actions with short snippets of dialog changes. Sure there are the occasional big decisions that affect the end of the gameplay, but you are still ending the game with very similar actions. As for the rest of those choices between telling the farmer if his donkey is sick or not, these simply change the way the player approaches the big problems. And players love the game regardless of the smoke and mirrors behind it.
Now we come to Dungeons and Dragons, the choiciest of all choice games. This is where no matter how much scripting you put into the game, the players will dance on your plans and throw them away like toilet paper. If you are like me, I never planned for anything to be behind those doors. In that last scenario, the players can very well go back and check out what was in the other doors. Or maybe I am clever and made a one-time use key for all the doors, and the players spent that key finishing the quest. Well the players really want to know, so they attempt to teleport/break down the door. Now there is a huge problem with the players finding something disappointing just because I gave them the option.
The real issue behind this is the lack of meaning in the choice. I take steps to hide the lie; eventually, they would find out. This is bad design and leads to unhappy players. The remedy is being honest about these decision points and allowing the players to change your plans. If you want your players to impact your world, allow them to impact your world and change your plans accordingly. Or for a more simple approach; drop the illusion and put one door in the room. Wait for that cool moment until you have content to back it up.
Now the door scenario could have been a diplomatic meeting, saving an innocence, or aiding the party’s favorite kingdom. The doors you put in your game should truly diverge into different paths; keep the illusions to the farmer’s donkey.
Let us know what you think about what we wrote, and share it with your fellow DM’s/Party!