Choose Your Own Adventure


The ability of players to affect events in a game is one of the crucial components that makes an RPG what it is. It's also one of the aspects of GMing that's easiest to mess up. I'll talk about why player choice is so important in RPGs and offer a few suggestions for how to uphold it in your games.

Of the many topics of conversation that recur among gamers, tales of bad GMs of games gone by is one of the most popular. Most of us have experienced at least one of the classics: the killer D&D DM who seemed to delight in throwing PCs up against unkillable monsters and unsolvable puzzles, the GURPS GM whose lack of creativity turned the game into to a death march of random encounters, the World of Darkness ST so enamored with the doings of his badass NPCs that the PCs never got the chance to shine. While all bad GMs are unique in their own frustrating ways, what many people don't realize is that most of them have one crucial thing in common: They don't allow players to make meaningful choices with the potential to change the course of the game.

Choice is a good thing in all gaming circumstances.

Here's the key: Choice is a good thing in all gaming circumstances. The more of it you have, the better. The instant the players can no longer affect the story in any meaningful way, your group isn't playing an RPG anymore; they're listening to the GM tell a story around a campfire. That can be enjoyable, but it's not why we sit around a gaming table. Instead, we sit down because we want to help tell stories where our characters are central to the action, and to control the course that story takes through decisions we make. The decisions we find important may vary with the style of gaming we prefer - Which feat do I take to optimize my fighter's build? Do I side with the king or the rebels in this political conflict? Does my character marry the prince and settle down, or keep adventuring? What equipment should we carry to ensure that our party survives its trip through the wilderness? - but they're always our decisions. And the more real those decisions are - that is to say, when picking one side of a conflict, or stocking your pack with certain items, or choosing particular feats has a real impact on the outcome of a story that would not have occurred otherwise, as well as the potential for disaster - the more engaging and fun a game becomes.

Upholding player choice is antithetical to the doings of bad GMs everywhere. In the previous examples, it's easy to see how the WoD ST's style doesn't afford the players a choice; when game sessions consist of sitting around and watching powerful NPCs do all the heavy lifting, the GM may have fun, but the players will be bored out of their minds due to their inability to affect the game world in any meaningful way. But it's important to recognize that the other two styles of bad GMing mentioned are also the result of an essential lack of focus on player choices. The killer DM sees gaming as a "me vs. them" competition rather than a collaborative pastime, and builds his adventures firmly within that idiom without regard for his players' desire to succeed every now and then. The uncreative GM has (perhaps inadvertently) limited the PCs' experience by failing to give them an interesting setting with which to engage. Despite their different game-running styles, bad GMs are, at a basic level, afraid of what might happen if they gave up any control to the players in their game. The result is unenjoyable for anyone who sits down at the table.

Much of the time, failing to give the players enough of a choice in how they carry out their own fun is the result of oversight rather than malice. But the worst GMs and systems are the ones who outright block players when they make choices the GM doesn't agree with. This is most clearly seen in the form of those single-minded GMs who seem to get a kick out of frustrating players' desires. A friend of mine once played in a D&D game in which the players decided to sink a large amount of time, gold, and XP into creating magic plate armor for the entire party. They spent the better part of a session playing through the item creation process, with the DM aware of and approving every step in the process. In the very next session, as soon as the PCs left their mountaintop lair they were immediately ambushed by a group of rust monsters. The magic armor was completely destroyed. It should come as no surprise to you to learn that the players abandoned this campaign shortly thereafter - all because the DM decided that he couldn't or wouldn't respect a choice made by his players about how they wanted their characters.

Systems-wise, a frequent manifestation of disdain for player choice can be seen in broken critical failure mechanisms. Think about it: when a player puts a large amount of character creation points or XP into a particular skill or power, they are sending a message to the GM that they have chosen to play a character who excels in that area, usually at the expense of other skills. It becomes incredibly frustrating for random chance to make a character who is supposed to be very good at one thing look worthless fool because of nothing more than unlucky die rolls, and thereby undermine a player's choices by turning their expert archer into a giant buffoon. This is especially true of systems like d20 where the mechanics state that no matter how good your character is at something, 1 out of 20 times they will fail horrendously at doing it. It's capricious, it's frustrating, it takes agency and choices away from the PCs when they really should be in the spotlight, and quite frankly, it's no fun.

Choices are not real choices if all of the options present an equally good outcome

This isn't to say that players should succeed at everything they try; in fact, far from it. Choices are not real choices if all of the options present an equally good outcome, the same way that choices aren't real if every option is a bad one. The "Monty Haul" style of game is just another manifestation of how un-fun a lack of choice can be, since when characters aren't presented with real challenges we never find out what interesting things might happen if they fail. The trick is that failure should be something that occurs because characters choose to take on a task that's too big for them and then get outclassed and/or fall prey to bad luck, not just because the capricious finger of fate decided that today was the day for a PC to die. Think about it - if you had to lose a beloved PC, would you rather have her be killed by dueling an opponent who was at her level or higher because she chose to defend her honor, or by being crushed under a rockslide because she botched a Climbing roll on her way to the next adventure? Failure is a great theme for games to explore, but it can also suck a lot of the fun out of gaming when presented in a way where choices are divorced from consequences both negative and positive.

Because of these beliefs about failure, it's my opinion that GMs should examine the critical failure mechanism in games they run and decide whether its existence might frustrate players rather than jazzing up a game with a bit of random fun. In the case of a mechanism that could prove frustrating to the unlucky, consider describing critical failures in a way that makes it clear that they're the result of random bad luck (just like the dice roll!) rather than a personal failing of the character or a moment of inexplicable ineptitude. For example, when possible I describe Firearms botches as a gun jamming and failing to fire, or Perception botches as a target's whispers being drowned out by an unfortunate low-flying plain. It makes botches go down a lot easier when players hear them described as random chance rather than a moral failing on behalf of their character. Things like a character accidentally shooting herself or her friend, or drawing a ridiculously wrong conclusion from what they see or hear, are reserved for circumstances where such an outcome is dramatically appropriate or clearly something that the player wants to explore. (Although Stealth critical failures will always be the result of tripping over a trash can no matter what. That's tradition.)

Beyond examining a game's critical failure mechanics, GMs can uphold the importance of choice in RPGs by getting good at improvisation. An old military adage states that no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is true in the context of gaming as well. GMs should take it as a given that in a group where player choices has true importance, the plans they make for a session will not always work the way they want them to, because there's always the possibility for the players to take things in a different direction. For this reason, when planning sessions I try to think ahead to various courses of action that my players might take when confronted with a problem, and to jot down a few notes about how they'll respond if that's the case. Knowing your group helps a lot with this, since after a long time playing together you can start to guess at the sorts of responses your players may favor and plan accordingly, but any good group of gamers is still likely to throw you a curveball every now and again. So GMs should always keep a clear understanding of the game's setting in mind, try to think one step ahead of their players, and be prepared for anything. (If this is something you struggle with, check out Faking It for my advice on how to improve your improv skills as a GM.)

There may be times when the players really don't have a choice

Of course, there may occasionally be some times when the players really don't have a choice in how certain things occur in your game. This happens occasionally in strongly narrative-focused games like the ones I run and play in, usually when dealing with details of the game set-up. For example, I ran a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game which began with the PCs at their high school reunion when the gathering was attacked by an elder demon. My plan was for the PCs to witness the current Slayer being killed by this demon, with the Slayer's power then being fragmented by the demon and passing on to them - so it would have been quite a problem for the rest of the game if they had succeeded in saving her when they saw her being dragged into the demon's mouth and decided to try for a daring rescue! While the PCs struggled (and ultimately failed) to pull the Slayer from the demon's clutches, the players probably suspected that they weren't going to succeed - but the point is that I allowed them to try, and to feel good about their attempt. Every so often for the rest of the game, players would make reference to "that time we almost saved the Slayer," so I know it was memorable no matter what. Similarly, I've been known to make use of "cinematics" that function similar to a cut scene in a video game, in which I briefly describe a scripted event (usually an interaction between NPCs or the setup for a battle) without permitting input from the players. I make sparing use of these - probably only one every 10 sessions or so - and always make sure to warn players beforehand and make sure they've said or done everything they want to before the "cinematic" begins. So choice isn't absolute in all circumstances, but when it isn't possible, GMs should either provide their players with the illusion of free will or make it clear what aspects of the situation can and can't be affected. (Also, if your games are less narrativist than mine, a problem like this is unlikely to ever come up anyway.)

It all comes down to this: Know your players. Know what they want from the game you're running, and find a way to give it to them. Sometimes, as in the above example, it may mean steering events in a particular way, but most of the time it means letting them decide what they value in a game and what interests them. When players are clearly stating that they've made a choice, give them what they want, and ignore or eliminate anything that gets in the way of their choices. Obstacles should be interesting and dramatic steps on the way to a goal, not arbitrary roadblocks thrown up by a GM or a system. Whether your PCs succeed or fail in those goals is a choice in and of itself...but it's one that I leave up to the dice and you.

As ever, a well-written article. I do especially like the first bit, about the bad D&D GM; it dovetails nicely with the earlier article about D&D4E, I think.

While I am fully aware that the nature of the steering will depend largely on the makeup of the party and the GMs ablities, I wonder if there are some more specific examples that can be provided for this. Your call to arms is good, certainly, but it might be of greater help to players and GMs to have more concrete details.

Then again, I do not think too many novice players/GMs read this website, so it may not be an issue...

First, thanks for a well-written article.

Second, I disagree with your point that the Monty Haul campaign is a [roblem of player chocie. There are people who enjoy these campaign and find their choices within the optimization, gear selection or tactical decisions. I don't see the "power creep" issue as being relevant to lack of player influence at all.

Third, you said this:
This is especially true of systems like d20 where the mechanics state that no matter how good your character is at something, 1 out of 20 times they will fail horrendously at doing it.
Please remember that Critical Failures is not a core part of D20. One does automatically fail on a natural 1, but not necessarily "horrendously" so.

One interesting way to bring that in, though, is to mirror the critical hit system; on a roll of 1, require another roll. If that second roll is a miss, then the failure becomes critical. Just a thought.

I finally ended up decideing to do away with critical failures. A 1 would only provoke an attack of oppurtunity from the enemy you tried to hit. Sped things up considerably and made heros feel like ehros. No one that fights with a sword for a living is going to catastrophically trip over it when he swings least not the kind of pro that a good story is about. Maybe in real life...but that isn't why most people roleplay.

Likewise, I got rid of critical hit confirmation. You roll a critical? It's a critical. The second roll is extraneous in my opinion.

(as an aside...I also sneered at anyone that said the abbreviation "crit" out loud, and referring to your PC as a "build" would get mocking looks of derision from everyone at the table)

I do think that it depends to some degree on the type of game being run. One looking for the high-drama serious story, yeah, getting rid of the critical failure rules and speeding up things as you suggest, Scott Free, makes sense. One going for laughs can use criticals to great effect.

I tend to be part of the latter. It just happens.

Right on! Confirmation rolls are a waste of time and made players feel bad if they fail.

Oh boo boo boo poor widdle ickle heart bleeds.

If I didn't enforce confirmation rolls my players would have it waaaaaay too easy (esp. when they play higher-level characters with scary special abilities that work only on a crit).

Still, each to their own.

Myself, I just liked to speed things up. It did indeed make things more powerful considering the system was built knowing that that second roll would be required. But, since it went for NPCs and creatures too, the players (and therefore their characters) only had it as easy as the rest of the world. I had a list of house rules for combat that made things even more over-the-top than that. Ditching confirmation rolls was just the tip of the iceberg.

You know, I was just re-reading the original article and something occured to me; you mention that your players will refer back to the time they "almost saved the Slayer". The fact is, they *absolutely did not* almost save the Slayer. That might be their perception of the situation, but it's one million miles from the truth. There was no chance for them to save the Slayer, it was never an option. You didn't allow them to try as you allowed them a mock attempt that was scripted to fail. You mention that you let them feel good about their attempt; that part is true. By letting them try though you knew it wouldn't work, you preserved the *illusion* of choice...not choice itself.

There's nothing wrong with that. I've done the same type of thing to great effect; and will no doubt do the same type of thing again many times. From reading your articles on Gamegrene I can tell that we run very similar campaigns (in style and tone, though not in content), which is why I always enjoy reading your articles (and wish we lived in the same city so we could co-run a campaign together...a male and female GM together could believably play every NPC and tara isn't interested in running a campaign).

The intersting thing I noticed about this particular article after re-reading it though is this:

Not only do you preserve the illusion of choice for your group, you preserve the illusion of "steering" for yourself. The line between "steering" and flat out "railroading" is a fine one. One which I cross over all the time; sometimes on purpose, and sometimes not. Being aware that that is what is happening is important, because you can't preserve the *illusion* of free will without first knowing as a fact that you are walking all over *actual* free will.

Let's say the party goes east when you thought they'd go west. Everything that you planned to happen in that session required them to go west. Most rule books etc. say this no big deal, you can just have those events take place to the east. Move the town or whatever. But what happens if the group knows the area? You can't move Westville to the east....the PCs know people in that town, they know it's layout, they shacked up and knocked up a barmaid there. In many styles of game this doesn't the type of campaigns you and I run it's a really big deal. The only options at this point are; a) save those events for the next time they *are* in Westville, and just wing it for the rest of the night (my favorite option); b) change everything so that it can take place in Eastville (much harder to do on the fly, which is why it's an option I'd only use if the events you had planned are time sensitive and *must* happen this session); or c) find some way to make them go to Westville after all (my least favorite, because it is out-and-out railroading).

Optoion c) actually has the best outcome for your story, and if you run the way I do that's really really important. It's the most heavy handed of the options as well though, and unless done right ruins the illusion of free will completely.

The only way that this situation can play out leaving the characters feel as though they had any kind of choice at all is if it was never really apparent they had to go to Westville anyways. Preserving the *illusion* of player choice starts waaaaaaay before that illusory choice even becomes an option for the group. If it was kind of obvious that the adventure would take them west, and they go east anyways, then by the middle of the session they find themselves riding into've preserved nothing. I don't know about anyone else, but my group would give me the gas face if I pulled that on them.

Making sure nothing is obvious is the first step towards preserving the illusion of choice. Being reactive to things after the fact, rather than proactive ahead of time in the planning stages of your adventure or campaign, is a certain recipe for disaster and GM burnout as every session becomes a rear gaurd action against your own best intentions. That's why your point about having a few different outcomes planned for is soooo important. It's just a shame that if you plan for three different outcomes, the group (well, mine anyways) will generally pick the fourth.

And really....the *illusion* of choice is what we're talking about here. Not real actual choice on the part of the players. Yeah I sounds like I'm defending railroading (or "steering" if you will), and to a small extent I am. But let's be brutally honest here; we've all done it from time to time...and some of those times it was positively the *right* thing to do. Saying that "When players are clearly stating that they've made a choice, give them what they want, and ignore or eliminate anything that gets in the way of their choices" rubs me a bit the wrong way (though being rubbed in any way is better than not being rubbed at all). The players aren't the only ones at the table, and unless they're going to actually pay me for my services as a GM, this ain't Harveys. I gotta get mine too, and if I'm constantly sacrificing what I had in mind for a campaign for what they want tonight then I may as well hand them the notes for the campaign and go home.

You make a good point by stating "It all comes down to this: Know your players. Know what they want from the game you're running, and find a way to give it to them". But it's also important to note the opposite. Know your GM. Know what he likes to run and how he likes to run it. Find a way to let him (or her) do what they want. Democratizing every aspect of gaming ...that would be wack. Totally wack.

I've looked at my players before and said, "you know what guys...y'all have decided to take off and rob banks. I never intended this to be a bank-robbing-in-a-fantasy-world campaign and you've made it exactly that. We're done here...I'm folding this one. It's not fun and if I'm not having fun over on this side of the screen, you won't either. Trust me." Does that sound harsh? I don't really care. My players appreciated my honesty, and the next campaign was pretty bad ass.

I guess what I'm hammering away at is this; WAY too many articles (and not just on Gamegrene) are full of advice for GMs on how to better serve their players as though the GM works for them and has some kind of mandate to make sure that the poor players are dealt with well and that they have everything they need. If aliens came to earth and read all this they'd wonder who these GMs were, why they waste so much time worrying about these "players", and when the hells do they get their cheques? LOL.

Seriously though...the illusion of choice is important. Damn important. Without it, we wouldn't be able to, I mean "steer"...our players into situations that we were prepared for and make sure that *everyone* at the table has a good night. Often things are worded so that it seems that the only reason GMs do this is to preserve what they had planned...their "precious story" as others have referred to it as. It generally seems worded to hint that this is because it's easier to do that than to Fake It for the night because the players did something unexpected.

I'd posit the theory (nay, the fact) that it's actually done because it's a much better story if it makes sense and proceeds along lines that are logical and were planned out for true dramatic effect. A variance here and there is makes the story better. But to give the players what they want at almost every turn...if they're so good at coming up with great fiction, why aren't *they* GMing? There's a certain amount of trust put in GMs that they will come up with something good and interesting that is fun in the enactment, and then amazing in the retelling after the fact. If players are constantly running off doing there own thing and ignoring a well crafted campaign...screw em. Let them play WoW or head down to the FLGS to join a group there; and I wish them all the best on their bloody treasure hunt. For GMs like you and I though gamerchick...we shouldn't have to worry about it all the time. We should be allowed by our players to take a certain amount of liberty with their free will and make sure that the campaign is great. That's the most important part of the type of gaming that we share.

Sometimes the players should give their head a shake and say "how interesting would Sherlock Holmes have been if he and Watson had always nicked off to the pub for porter and ignored all the clues that Moriarty was around again?" and stop worrying so much about their illusory and precious "free will".

(wow...I can't wait for the feedback on this...we've all just started agreeing way too much around here, and I personally am tired of all the back patting going on. We've become kind of...well...typical. That's not the point of Gamegrene (nor why I've always drifted back here), so I'm ready to lace up the gloves and get busy)

(though being rubbed in any way is better than not being rubbed at all)

Can I quote you out-of-context on this? :)

In any case, please note that your view is very much based on YOUR experience and YOUR play style. While I share your apparent need to prepare a lot in advance, other GMs are very fond of improvising and co-authorship of the narrative.
For example, I played a game of Lacuna (search the web), where the GM seemed to strive on tangents mentioned by the players and played off of what we mentioned. Even more expressly, I played a game of Cold City (google it) in which system the players actually dictate what happens next when winning a conflict resolution. I'd say these types of games (and GMs) don't need (or at least are in less of a need for) the illusion of choice, as they work well with Real Choice (TM).

Yes, please do. Quote away.

And view is based on my experience and play style. I also love riffing for sessions at a time on extraneous acts that my players undertake (the recent and infamous Cheese & Butter Plotline (TM) comes immediately to mind). I love it. I thrive on it. But only until it starts to take away from what the campaign is actually about. I was running a Call of Cthulhu game once where the PCs were more interested in being a motorcycle gang than actually playing the campaign we had all agreed would be interesting. It ended when I realized that the only time the plot or narrative got to rear it's ugly head was in small doses that they quickly moved as far away from as fast as they could.

I have no tolerance or patience for "player choice" or "free will" when it's used simply for it's own sake. Within the context of the actual campaign that is being run? Huzzah! Choose freely away!!!! But when it's merely an excercise in "exactly how much free will do we have in this setting/campaign....let's find out shall we?", then get way from my gaming table. And take your motorcycle with you.

For what it's worth, one of the best campaigns I ever ran was hinged entirely on 100% player and character freedom...I had some NPCs that knew the PCs, and I knew what those NPCs were all about; the PCs did what they wanted and I had the world respond believably. Fantastic campaign, and it lasted for over a year (the James Bond campaign that I sometimes hint at but never extoll).

Real Choice (TM). I'm not against it...I just think it's no where near as important as Players would have GMs think. Often Players put false importance on things when they aren't aware they don't really have as much of it as they thought in the first place anyways. That's why the illusion of chocie, IMO, is far more important than Real Choice. It let's me feed the players my cake, meanwhile they think it's their cake and that they get to eat it to. Everyone wins, no one cries.

(and can quote me out of context on the "feeding them my cake" line as well. Feel free to add a funny accent so that it becomes disturbing enough to raise eyebrows)

I agree choice for choice sake is redundant and can make for extremely bad experiences.

I experiencied choice to be a variable directly injected into the "impact-by-fequency"-calculation.

Groups meeting once a month were (more than) well satisfied with a rather discreet model of choice ("go there, do that"), while groups with sessions once or twice per week desire an exponential model for decisions, better served by an ongoing campaign scenario ("Ok, if you do that, let me think for a second") than a series of (more or less connected) adventures.

Or, to rephrase my statement: player choice can be a variable of time. Recapitulation can be an enemy of choice, willingly ignored by players, or interpreted differently each time.

Thanks for an interesting article, though I think really we're dealing with two separate problems that can remove player choice: mechanical and social.

Mechanical elements inherent in rules would be critical fumbles as you said, or less severely, simply missing an important roll. Fortunately, those problems are easy enough to deal with via additional mechanical elements that allow for rerolls or negating failures. Solutions include the Hero Points of True 20, the Dramatic Editing of Adventure!, and many others. All have the similar element of giving a limited resource that allows the players to reroll bad rolls, or alter elements in the game world in theri favor.

A more severe problem is the GM who's intent on having the plot in his mind unfold to the point of removing all volition from the player characters. This is the GM who is determined that event X WILL unfold in the game, no matter what the players come up with. If the GM does this often and blatently enough the players will know for sure that their actions are meaningless. Granted a GM may have an idea for a plot, but it should be established in terms of "If the PCs do THIS, the antagonists will do THAT", not as a novel that the players get to listen to.

The upshot is that the GM should really talk to the players and make sure he's on the same page with them, not only in terms of the game world, but his expectations for character behavior. If GM and player expectations become seriously out of whack, then it's probably best to cancel the game, rather try to railroad the players.

I like Scott's take on this situation and I have to say that recent experience has shown me that there are many circumstances in which the "illusion" of absolute freedom is better than absolute freedom.

Last year I returned to RPGs by joining a new club, I did not know the members very well but after a few games and knowing how old they were and how often they had played I thought "what the hell" and decided to run for them. As I was coming back to gaming I thought I would try an old setting of mine. What I did not realise was that I was about to do something they were not familiar with.

My CP2020 game is a sandbox. Things happen, some of these things may not be stopped, helped, or even changed by the players. This is the point, the Urban Sprawl is a dark and dangerous place, and sometimes You just gotta put up with it. The other thing that is important is that "Nothing is Going on, but daily life", yes "daily life" in this instance includes, corporate assassinations, gangs having meetings, the local bars being hassled for protection money, organised crime starting a war, oh and those guys that want to demolish your neighbourhood and build on it. I did include some personal background plot for each player, so they had something for themselves, but mostly this game was a Sandbox. I decided to do something different as well. I allowed "free choice".

The game failed, it was enjoyable enough but the players flailed around and did not really get much done and seemed clueless as to what it was all about. I had explained at the start, "it is a sandbox do not expect a traditional plot line, this is just a group of friends in a neighbourhood living life as best they can". Something had gone wrong. I decided it was because I did not have a good grasp on the players.

So I played a little more and then invited a number of them into another try. Werewolf the Apocalypse. I decided this time that there would be an ongoing plot line, but no direct way of solving it, just a group of Wyrm bad guys the group had to take down "their way", at the same time other events would happen. They had chosen to play city dwellers so I decided to use the old Rage Over New York stuff that I had done in the early 90s. What I did keep though was the sense that city was large and too many things were going on for one single pack.

Again the only time they really clicked was when they followed a direct plot line and had the "illusion" of choice. If they had choice they just walked around and spoke to people. One guy said "There is too much going on we cannot do everything" and though one of the choices before them was "gain more standing in the local Sept and therefore motivate other packs" they never thought of it until directly told by an elder "motivate others, if you cannot now, prove yourselves". To me this was me "steering" the players. The game spluttered and died....

Which moves me onto now. I wanted to run an NWoD Requiem Game (although Hunter has me thinking, but someone else beat me to it) this is partly due to the fact that many of the membership have a big hate on for NWoD (though none of them admit it they love OWoD and hate NWoD because it is new) and wish to show them that both settings are good in themselves for different reasons. However, this would be another sandbox game if I am not careful (I love them they are easy). So I decided to try something else.

I decided to run a heavily narrative 7th Sea. Oddly I have ended up running the same damn game for two groups, and this has shown me something more illuminating.

Group 1 is comprised of a group of players who love a narrative approach to the system, we all know what we can do, a lot of what happens is explained away using a Conflict based die roll with the results of what a fail would be known upfront. This has grown organically and has worked very well. Choice is huge but so is the knowledge of the direction of the story. For instance it was known for some time that one player had to rush off and look for a relative who was captured and held on an an island somewhere, it was agreed they would all head off in that direction. Of course the reason the information about that relation came up in conversation was purely because I had sketched out a rough plan of what would happen to them if they went there and therefore wanted to push it. What was interesting was that another player arranged for various people they had rescued to be sent to a place of safety....only for these people to be captured again. At this point they all had choice. Who do they rush off to rescue was decided the second group, the relative would wait, after all they had been captured weeks ago (this of course will have impact on the story). The players love it.

Group 2 is mixed, one loves the narrative approach I chose, two are neither here nor there and two hate it. The last two asked me to change it. They felt it was to "auto success based" and they wanted the challenge of the dice. Therefore I decided to go to the route of a more traditional approach. Success would be based on dice plus good roleplaying for the social scenes. What I found interesting was that the player who liked the more narrative approach is now finding the game difficult. She was faced with a simple problem. A pirate haven would not let them dock their ship unless they paid 250 guilders. The person making the demand was backed by 12 armed men (with muskets loaded and ready). The player who liked the narrative approach was the ships captain so she was doing most of the talking and said to me "what do I do here I have been on ships before...." and I responded "nothing in your background says you have been with pirates or worked as a pirate so it is really up to you". Now....she had a simple or not pay. By paying the PCs would have been accepted and not hassled but would have got involved in a story directly linked to the ships captain and her mysterious past, by not paying they had to travel further north allowing those they are looking for get further away.

This was a choice, I did not care which they chose I was ready for it. Both however are illusory. Both are steered by myself in a huge way. The 250 guilders was easily affordable by the group that was not the illusion (in fact not paying was a shock), the illusion was simply the impact of the choice. By choosing to pay they would find one complication, by choosing not to pay they would find another complication.

Finally this leads me onto something else Scott has brought up, the amount of articles that tell the GM "It is all about the players, serve your players". To be honest I am discovering that this is total bullshit. I have never found a player that tells me what they actually want from a game. They will tell me what they claim they want, because like every group effort done by human beings, the individuals who are a part of the game want to fit in with what they believe is the norm for that group. Therefore I have had players ask for mystery and intrigue, when they hate it. They have told me they want to be surprised and ambushed "if you think I am speaking to another NPC in the wrong place too loudly" and then tell me I am interfering with their roleplaying when I do just that. The best one was the player who asked me to;

"make an NPC I can really click with, I like RP with NPCs. It would need to be dynamic, pushy and driven not a wallflower, it would need it's own agenda but at least like me. It would be great if I became embroiled in something that was linked to the both of us."

After clarification of what dynamic and puhsy meant; He claimed it had to be brash, loud, daring, reckless etc....

I gave him what he wanted....

I was asked to get rid of the NPC by the end of that session.....

In the end he clicked with what he called "The Wallflower".

Players have no idea what they want. The games that have worked best for me over the last 20 years are those games that I advertise and then just run with the aim of "provide fun for all around the table". Nothing more, nothing less. Sweating over the details such as "important and meaningful choice" has killed more games than I can count.

Bartmoss, sorry, I did not understand the difference in play style between your two 7th sea groups.
Of group 1 you say :"a lot of what happens is explained away using a Conflict based die roll" and of the secons you say :"They felt it was to "auto success based" and they wanted the challenge of the dice". I'm not seeing how using a conflict die roll isn't "the challenge of the dice".
In addition, I'm not sure what the conclusion you have drawn from this comparison.