Meaningful Choice at the Crossroads...
A figure stands before a cairn erected at the crossroads. As you approach, he turns and you see that his head is a golden polyhedral, you hear whispering in your mind...
My current goal as a GM is to hone the amount of player agency in my games, and I want that to happen from the opening scene. In that vein, Cyborgs and Sorcerers have suggested a metric for player agency in RPGs, Time to First Meaningful Choice, or TFMC.
According to this metric, the longer it takes for the players to make their first meaningful decision in a game is indicative of the amount of agency in it. So, the sooner your players make a meaningful choice, the more likely it is that there is a high level of agency in your game. How might you do that better than having the characters arrive in a new village to explore? Use a crossroads.
A crossroads opens up the world for players. It allows them to not only choose which adventure hook they’d like to tackle but the place where they will find those hooks. Of course, the key here is to ensure that it is a meaningful choice. That means they need enough information to make an informed choice.
How do we make the road taken meaningful for the players? I think there are numerous ways to accomplish this:
You might have a zero session where you provide each of the players with a rumor about the various towns and/or cities they may be able to visit.
Or maybe you establish the players' family and connections in the various towns in that zero session.
You might have the characters stumble upon an NPC of some type who can provide narrative hooks and information about the region in natural conversation.
You might have the characters engage in conversation with the caravan driver they’re riding along with, talking about the various places they’ll visit. But then when they reach the crossroads, he turns into a werewolf and tries to eat them.
I don't want to belabor the point, but I’m sure a clever GM could conceive many ways to prompt decision and provide information at the crossroads.
More than three choices at this juncture is overkill, so use four roads. One that characters are currently traveling, and three new paths that open up before them. There needs to be enough information about three towns/cities to provide interesting material to the players, regardless of where they decide to go.
Making towns can be time-consuming though, so unless I’m ready to do a lot of work to create interesting towns for the characters to visit there are other options:
Matt Colville suggests using towns from pre-published adventures. Specifically, he suggests:
Homlett from the Village of Homlett
Orlane from Against the Cult of the Reptile God
Fairhill from The Crucible of Freya
If you, as a timeworn GM, have created towns, repurpose them. You don’t always have to start from scratch.
When designing adventure hooks in my games, I prefer at least three hooks. So my prep notes would probably look something like this:
The characters come to a crossroads during their journey inland from the port town of Porthladd. There is a broken sign indicating what lies down each road:
Griffinhold, north, 30 miles
The weaver’s daughter has gone missing.
There is an abandoned square in town that is supposedly haunted.
People in the village have been falling ill since the visit of traveling gypsies.
Alke, East, 70 miles
The Duke hasn’t been seen in months.
A remarkable tree is said to have magical properties but is confined within the castle gardens.
Bandits have beset the road between Alke and Griffinhold.
Shadescira, south, 20 miles
The dwarves who built this city were driven out by invading humans, and there are whispering of the dwarves' return.
A necromancer has been said to be raising the dead to the north.
A village to the south has been invaded by magic component hunters, as the swamp has received a reputation for valuable reagents.
Map your towns, populate them with NPCs, and locations of interest. This will round out your flexibility to react to player actions in whichever town they visit. If you've already made towns, or steal them from elsewhere, then you can avoid this step.
Crossroads aren't going to be the default for the start of all RPGs, nor should they be. However, the concept has merit in open-world design and in providing characters with agency in the game from the first moments. I think there are more ways to spice up crossroads for a game, I’ll provide them in a future article.
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