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AboutOn Roleplaying Games

On Meaningful Choice

We talked about meaningful failure in our Tiger King scenario, that we want to introduce the possibility that character action might fail only when it will be narratively interesting, and also because we’re trying to simulate real-world action.

I want to focus on the simulation aspect of this.

We’re saying mechanics (whether they are associative or dissociative) are about verisimilitude, specifically that they model the possibility of failure in the fiction. Which means what we’re really talking about is simulating uncertainty in the fiction: if Lonnie fails to be stealthy, this introduces an element of surprise for the GM and the players, and it will be interesting for the roleplay because the GM will have to invent an outcome to narrate the resolution. 

What is Meaningful Choice?

So that means Lonnie must have had a meaningful choice in her actions, she must have been able to do otherwise in the fiction before the die was cast, and there must have been the possibility of any number of alternative outcomes after it was cast.

Meaningful choice is what separates problematic examples of roleplaying-like games from roleplaying games proper.

In the CRPG, the PC can make choices, but those choices are meaningless: the “choices” are limited and predetermined by the computer game, and the outcomes similarly fixed. Where Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy VII has the choice between two or three interactions with the fiction via a conversation tree, Lonnie in our hypothetical Tiger King RPG can do literally anything, including abandon the scenario, get on a boat, and travel to New Zealand.

This is because a computer is not a GM; it can't react to an infinite number of possible courses of action the character might take and then render an infinite number of resolutions with its mechanics. (Although maybe someday it will be able to...)

The same void of meaningful choice exists in Magic the Gathering: the player-as-planeswalker is limited to taking a number of actions equal to the cards in his deck, even if there are many millions of outcomes possible from the combinations of those cards being played against his opponent.

Are you sure?