Table Reflection: Dealing With Indecision

One of the things that can bring a campaign to a halt is when the players are all divided on their goals and cannot make a constructive decision to handle their progress through the campaign. It’s a problem that can plague even a good game, and it frustrates everyone in the group equally. Fortunately, someone who knows what to look for can navigate their path past indecision and continue the game constructively without causing hard feelings or ruining the narrative.

The core causes of indecision are many, but the common ones that I’ve seen are either the lack of a good option, or the presence of too many death traps and false good options. The former can happen when players stop caring about the main storyline, either because factions and characters don’t hold their interest, or because they’ve felt that there’s no progress being made in the story. The latter happens on account of distrust between the players and the GM. As a GM, I can guarantee you that players often play genre-savvy, and if your games tend to be brutal and punishing they’ll shrink away from risks, especially if in-universe arguments exist that are plausible.

For dealing with the lack of perceived progress, it’s necessary to offer and craft experiences that are non-trivial and exciting. Consider the article on choice I wrote for The Gamer Effect; if you offer a ton of mediocre and bad actions, it won’t make a difference. Players should be directly enfranchised in the decision making process. One of the core culprits in this is the attempt to create black-and-grey morality in games; if one faction is overtly evil, and the other is only covertly evil, then the players would presumably gravitate to the covertly evil faction, according to this logic. Unfortunately, this is a false premise, at least in most games. Note that this doesn’t mean that you can’t have a setting with tarnished morals; I’ve seen a Dark Heresy game where the Empire does horrible, horrible things and still come out looking like good guys because their motives were pure and they were safeguarding the innocent (by blowing up their planet). However, if you’re trying to provide two unsavory at heart options, the players will likely see through them. Similarly, even if a faction is intended to be good, or at least unambiguously better than another faction, they lose a lot of credit with the players if they’ve wronged them, as a GM in a game I’m participating in has had to deal with. In the worst case, this can lead to conflict, which is something I’ll touch on in another article.

Another cause for indecision comes from the risks that certain actions entail. This is heavily dependent on the game and the players; if, like the groups I’ve played with, players highly value their characters they will play with a very low risk style. The downsides of this are that you can run into issues with players who never want to do anything that could get them killed. There are a couple ways around this. You could just establish a precedent of not killing characters unless you have permission or it’s a very extreme case. Most games also implement some system in the rules to allow players to prevent death, like the Hand of God (or Not Dead Yet, depending on edition/context) in Shadowrun, to mitigate this fear even further. In addition, you could tell players outright that you won’t kill (or irrevocably maim, or make pariah to the whole world) their characters¬† without their consent, which can prevent some of the more pressing issues with player anxiety. In other contexts, you could simply remind players that the game encourages and is designed on a basis of character death, or allow them to, when the final moments of their character come, have a mechanical reward to allow them to do something great with their character’s last breaths.

Note, however, that indecision is different from conflict. Player conflict arises when indecision or other factors build up and the group can no longer agree on a course of action. Conflict is bad, and the GM has to be very careful when dealing with it, because it’s when players begin to become not only bored but also unhappy with the direction that the game is going. Failure to address conflict can lead to even the best GM losing their campaign. The best way to prevent conflict is to provide a clear vision and provide a means with which to reconcile players and the GM in a non-threatening environment, preferably with individual feedback from players.

However, when you have indecision it can often be solved in a number of ways. You can provide a new opportunity to push players onward and reboot the campaign, or even inject action into the current state of the campaign and push them onward. Indecision is best when it is still at the point that the players don’t know where to go; if they’re provided with a crisis or another impetus they will likely grasp onto it; it’s a matter of making sure that there’s a clear path and one that will serve as an olive branch from the narrative to the players. If they don’t like either of the factions presented to them, give them a third option, just be sure that it’s designed so that they won’t hate it as well. If they’re afraid to lose their characters, force them into a fight for their lives, and let them see that you won’t kill their characters without just cause.

So, in short, when indecision comes up, identify whether it comes from boredom or fear, and inject action into the campaign to push the players out of their comfort zones and get them going again. Don’t get angry at players, or try to pile on the same choices again and again, and don’t stop to belabor the point until the players come to blows with each other.

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