Saturday, April 3, 2010

Choice Paralysis

This probably isn't news to you, but if you give humans too many choices they tend to freeze up and not pick anything at all. There is a good video about it here.

I've known that and yet I've been striving to give my players a lot of options when designing the locations they'll be exploring. I'm posting this because I wonder if my little abandoned monastery had too many choices.

Here is the dungeon in question:

This monastery is built on a rock outcrop 50' down inside the Maw. To reach it players had to ride down in a basket, then take a wooden lift from the top story to this one. The 10' x 10' square at top right is the lift they came in on.

When I designed this I was trying to avoid making it linear, so you see, from the very first room they have to decide between two doors. Both parties that explored this place chose the nearest door. Then the party is confronted with a corridor of doors as far as their light source illuminated. Both parties checked each door as the went down the corridor.

Both parties felt a draft and eventually discovered the secret passage behind the monastic cells. Then they had a quandary, because they had already seen some weird bogey-like creatures in the dim light ahead and now they knew they could be flanked.

They both seemed to lock up when the parties made it to the U-shaped intersection with the curtains. At some point the second party had had enough and started cutting down all the doors and drapes so they could at least have better visibility.

I'm wondering if a dungeon map can avoid being linear and still be more focused. I'm afraid my location detracted from their sense of what to do, where to go next. This was exacerbated by the fact that they had no real reason to be there except the prospect of booty. And it didn't help that I was trying to creep them out, so every now and then when they'd stalled out I would make a bogey appear behind them: whispering, riding a pug.

I'm curious as to other DM's experience. Have you seen parties just locked up in indecision? Is that just a sign of inexperience? With no sure way to go does an experienced party just choose randomly and push ahead?


  1. My group always goes 'left' if we don't know which way to go. :P

  2. Thanks for the comment. Choosing an arbitrary direction ahead of time seems a reasonable solution.

    Are you all pretty experienced players? How long does it take you to decide: "Okay we've talked long enough, left it is!"

  3. When I was a player, we also always went left. It was, for most of us, our first campaign.

  4. Thanks Staples, I guess the votes are in and Left it is :)

  5. First, to me one of the goals/effects of "trying to creep them out" is this paralysis. Players are scared/worried and thus cautious. I think that is good result and you successfully creeped them out!

    2nd, Analysis Paralysis is a player problem not a DM one. It's up to them to resolve, DM can of course help. Many, many players are accustomed to passively following linear plots from movies, books, and railroad / storypath type RPGs. They aren't use to making significant choices. A few things I've found that help are;

    Explain the difference between linear/storypath and sandbox, tell them straight out it's up to them to create the plot, they are in charge not the DM.

    Make choices different/unique via description, it doesn't matter if the description is indicative of anything just that the description makes one choice different from another and thus players have some basis for making a decision. One corridor having carvings on wall, a fresh breeze, dusty, water dripping from ceiling, groaning sound, etc.

    Impose time limit. Either, in game via wandering monster, chase/chased, etc. Or, if players are arguing endlessly and no agreement is in site, say "Look we can argue rest of night or we can play this game. You have 2 minutes to make a decision or I'm making one for you."

    Third, choice and non-linearity is great. Please don't remove it from your dungeons.

    btw cause I'm an evil bastard DM I always add (trapped) loops, teleports, avoidable deadly and pointless encounters, rotating rooms, up / down choices and the like to screw players who cop out and do the "Left" thing.

  6. Analysis Paralysis is what we called it in the military too. The real answer in the real world is to have a defined "mission." And that seems like a good idea in the fantasy world too. Hopefully a mission that they have some buy-in towards; perhaps as a result of helping to decide what that mission is or ought to be.

    What's your purpose here? Are you supposed to clear the building? Mask it? Move by it? Destroy it? Map it? If the players have a reason for going into the place in the first place -- a reason that they decided on (or that someone up the chain of command decided on for them), then that right there can help them make decisions about it; "What action can we take which will better enable us to meet our goal here?"

    "Creepiness" shouldn't actually be an issue at that point -- if they are playing in a world that's strange to them (as you clearly have them doing by simply not providing the usual "it's a Kobold, see page umpty fratz in the Monster Manual" and instead providing an "off" description that makes this something unknown and therefore potentially dangerous), then clearly they should exercise caution, but their originally devised mission should be the primary driving force behind their decisions.

    Or, they can always go left. ;-)

  7. I agree, my buddy and I used the metaphor of a swat team, you need to get in and get out without dallying indecisively. But . . . I think I've come to feel it is fun for players to learn this in-game. I mean, I think the failure of a few tpks makes success all that much sweeter when players get more focused and organized. Of course that only works when you can roll up a new character and death isn't permanent, but that's kind of the fun of rpgs.