What TTRPGs Can Learn From Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books


Something I think that (quality) Adventure Gamebooks (Fighting Fantasy, Fabled Lands, etc.), Choose Your Own Adventure Novels, and Interactive Fiction (Twine Games, Frotz, etc.), do a lot better than most Tabletop Roleplaying Games is combining clarity, impact, and diversity of choice (that is, the choices offered are clear, they are impactful to the state of the fiction, and there are many of them, all of good quality). 

This isn't to say that ttrpgs somehow offer fewer choices, or inherently offer ones of poorer quality than Gamebooks and Interactive Fiction. Ttrpgs obviously benefit from potentially infinite options for interactivity and decision making, but when it comes time to determine the outcomes of the player's choices, because of the moment-to-moment nature of these games, it's easy for the GM to default to offering the outcomes that simply flow "most naturally" or with the least resistance from the fictional situation, rather than outcomes that would provide the most fun/interest. 

This can be particularly true with rules that align themselves with the fiction first philosophy, like many OSR/NSR titles, Free Kriegspiel, and other "high trust" kinds of play that emphasize the necessity of treating the fictional game space as fully realized and consistent. Being someone who prefers (and has written at length) about the power and importance of such play, I think it's an interesting issue: obviously we don't want to sacrifice the integrity of the fictional space in pursuit of higher drama, but I think that a lot of the time, the cognitive load of keeping said space in your mind to such a degree that you can fully realize the dramatic potential of all elements, characters, and objects in a given scene is simply untenable. 

Generally, these lacunae are where I look for rules to provide some support for my failures of imagination, but unfortunately, most rules for games of this type (and most rules generally speaking) tend to fall short here. When formulating an outcome, for say... failing to strike a dragon with your sword, you'd be lucky to have your rules offer "have you considered taxing a resource?" rather than "have you considered that as the dragon rears back from the character's strike strike, the coins shift beneath them, sending them tumbling down a mountain of treasure?"

Now people have talked about this (particularly about that "missing an attack" example to a pretty thorough extent. There's a lot of best practice wisdom out there (Chris McDowall of Bastionland and Arnold Kemp of Goblin Punch have each written pretty extensively on their preferred GMing methods for fiction first play and it's pretty good stuff), and I'm sure even now several of you are breathlessly waiting to ask me if I've heard about the "Stuff happens on a miss" mantra. I have! And it's good, much better than my dismissive tone towards it just now would suggest. 

It doesn't, however, solve that problem of cognitive load, which is just that in order for any of these practices to work, you need to both remember to use them, and then, which is the tricky part, actually use them effectively, which, as previously mentioned, doesn't happen all that often. Even in games where I do my level best to make sure every player action leads to an interesting decision point, I'll still end up with the default "uhhh idk, you miss and now you're out of position" "you fail to pick the lock and your lockpick breaks" "you hit him and now he's hurt" etc. a good 60% of the time. Of course, if you're a better GM than I am, this might not be an issue, but because I am not a better GM than that, I want better for myself. 

Some Belonging Outside Belonging games and their derivatives like the excellent Wanderhome have tried to address this mechanically through their "gain/lose a token to access a picklist and choose a flavorful option from there," but this method tends to restrict (consciously sometimes, but far  more often unconsciously) the options players feel they can use to interact with the game world, and the fun of ttrpgs for me is being able to poke and prod anything, any way that I can imagine poking and prodding it. 

Closer to being on the money, any given "success IF a cost" mechanic does a decent job of keeping the action flowing from moment to moment (and if you're using success AT a cost rather than success IF a cost... I'm sure you've got your reasons but you're missing out on the "difficult choice creator for dummies" mechanic. And if you're not using either than I just sincerely wanna know why). This is good, but still suffers from the diversity of choices being limited, (since there are only two options to choose from: succeed with a consequence or fail), as well as not providing the GM structure or space to construct more interesting choices. 

In a similar vein, PtbA moves frequently have a "when this resolves, choose 2 options from a list of 5" which is actually almost exactly the sort of thing I'm interested in, but unfortunately, the presence of a picklist does still sour things slightly (as well as the fact that most PtbA moves just do not take full advantage of this structure imo, many still falling prey to the "well try taxing a resource" mentality). 

To the point, I'm interested in is taking this "clarity/impact/diversity of choice" that Gamebooks/Interactive Fiction provide and trying to fit it into a resolution system in a more comprehensive way than the one listed above. Players have complete freedom of choice when determining their actions, but once it comes time to resolve the outcomes, the GM makes a list of say 3-5 bespoke outcomes. The player, depending on their characters aptitude/quality of the roll/whatever, either chooses 1 outcome, which comes to pass, or, if they're not as in control/competent/whatever, they choose 2 outcomes, and the GM chooses the final option which occurs. 

You might want more structure around this; you might want a different structure entirely. But still, I think there's something to increasing the amount of attention and intention afforded to the process of determining outcomes, both in terms of turning these moments into opportunity for player choice (because choice is what makes these games fun), as well as forcing the GM to take some time and put some intention into the outcomes they are offering their players, and how they can use those outcomes to provide interesting decision points, rather than simply going with the best-fit, off the top of the dome option. 

In its ideal form, this would look something like: 
1. Complete freedom of player choice leading to conflict 
2. Decision point! GM gives player choice of outcomes; player chooses or narrows down the selection, then GM chooses
3. Outcome is played out*, leading to another conflict and thus, decision point.
4. Etc. 

*The wonderful thing about ttrpgs is that of course this cascading style of gameplay with one decision point leading into another can essentially be ducked out of during step 3, because the players are of course free to handle the outcome they chose in any way they can imagine, and can try to get off the ride freely and often. 

Lastly, I would say that it's important that this process feel as organic as possible, rather than being confined to a PtbA/BoB picklist, because the main downside this method has is the increased time spent determining options, and that combined with rules reference (in my experience) really kills momentum. (on the other hand, if you hate improv, picklists are great for you and you can and should ignore this post!)

Besides, doing things organically means that the options you provide as the GM can be tailored to the characters capabilities, conditions, injuries, etc. Shit, if it's dark or they're surprised, intentionally obscure the options and make them guess what "fluttering screech" and "surprisingly heavy" do if you choose them. 


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