December 12, 2011

Branches and Consequences

Cosmicgoose is back with another question. If I may take the liberty of paraphrasing (and I may, because this is my blog and here there is no law save for my iron will) he asks:

In Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, you talk about possible story branches from the characters' success and failure, and how it helps to think ahead about what these might be. In the case of failure, should you plan for characters to suffer additional negative consequences, or is the sting of losing bad enough?

Ideally, you want some but not all failures to bring about lingering negative consequences, and some but not all successes to bring positive ones. In a compelling ongoing story, those consequences arise directly from the story and make themselves self-evident. If you fail to claim the island you sailed for, you lose the queen's favor. If you succeed in capturing the magic sword, you now get to use it against your opponents.

To complicate the equation, sometimes successes ought to provoke negative side consequences, emulating the costly victory: you take the hill, but with heavy casualties. Likewise, a failure might, in a surprising twist, lead somewhere helpful. You get beaten up and captured, in the process learning something about the bad guy's plan.

Too few consequences and a session's episodes seem weightless and disconnected from one another. However, if every event brings about a lasting outcome, they will pile up and bog down the developing storyline. After a while, you and your players find it hard to come up with fresh ideas for consequences. It becomes difficult not only to bring all of them into play, but simply remember them all.

Some of my game rules tell you, as part of the resolution system, when consequences attend to an action. HeroQuest and DramaSystem both do this. During in-house testing for the latter, I had to junk any early version of the procedural system because too often led to a single result—player victory, with a negative consequence. Having fixed that, they crop up enough to add interest and weight, but not so often that the weight becomes burdensome.