The party comes to a fork in the road. On the right-hand side is a goblin encampment encounter you’ve spent tons of time planning. On the left-hand side is that same encounter, but it is reskinned to be for human bandits. Either way the party slices it they’ll be facing the same encounter. This is what we call an illusion of choice. No matter what choice they make, the result will be the same.
I’ve heard this example called “The Quantum Goblin Problem”. It’s a riff on Quantum Computing where subatomic particles can exist in multiple places at the same time. In this case, the goblins exist as an encounter on either path at the same time.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen given as advice to GMs on plenty of forums and social media. You can see the obvious benefits of reskinning your encounters to give your players “options” as it helps GMs save a lot of prep time and work. However, in doing so you sacrifice player agency and their ability to make impactful decisions in your game. The whole reason many of us play TTRPGs is to make meaningful choices and have those decisions affect the story. The more you place quantum goblins in your game, the less your players’ choices become relevant, and the less they’ll take your game seriously.
What is the Illusion of Choice?
There are plenty of other examples of the illusion of choice outside of The Quantum Goblin Problem. Essentially it is a form of railroading where the players can make a decision, but their choice has no affect on the game’s direction. They can choose the left path or right path and they get to the same destination. You may have 20 cities or towns to visit in your map, but in reality you have a single unnamed town in your notes to use when they visit one.
Basically, any decision given to your players that has no affect on the campaign, setting, or situation is the illusion of choice. They have a decision, they can make a choice, but whatever they say or do does not matter.
GMs tend to rely on the illusion of choice when they’ve dug themselves in too deep of a hole. They’ve made their world to big, or they’ve promised too much to their players. They get nervous and they make up decisions so that their players feel satiated, but after a while your players will be able to catch on. It’s even easier to notice this in in-person games due to your GM’s body language.
Illusion of choice from the GM’s perspective
It’s frustrating when you spend a lot of time and effort creating an encounter or quest, but your players never encounter it. It’s enticing to invoke the quantum goblin problem and give your players the illusion of choice so that they’ll “choose” your adventure you’ve worked so hard on. Admittedly, I’ve done this and it’s something you can totally get away with once in a long while. As I’ve said before, if you do this too often, your players will not take your game seriously and you will lose credibility because of it.
For the GM the illusion of choice is primarily used to save time when planning out encounters. It can also be used to get you out of a bind during a campaign when an option you hadn’t anticipated has surfaced. This is a tactic often used when you’re unprepared or under-prepared. Unfortunately, it ends up harming your players more than it helps you in many cases.
Illusion of choice from the players’ perspective
One of the biggest advantages TTRPGs have over video games is that you have an unlimited amount of options. Whatever the players and GM can imagine can be an option. There are plenty of choices throughout any given RPG campaign. These choices provide you with opportunities for character development as well as directly influencing the story and world the game takes place in.
As a player when you’re presented with pointless choices repeatedly it feels as if your decisions do not matter. You’ve been railroaded and you’re basically playing your character only when the GM feels it doesn’t impede on their story. You may be able to make some real choices, but they never impact the story at all. When you’re forced to make a choice you’ll always end up at the next dungeon, even if you’ve attempted to avoid it.
As you can see, this affects the players’ moral and enjoyment of the game. They want to make an impact in the world and story as much as the GM does. TTRPGs at their core are collaborative storytelling games, let them collaborate!
Skills to help avoid using the illusion of choice
There are many skills that I have used and developed to help work myself away from providing my players with the illusion of choice. Two of my favorites are improvising and rough planning, both of which I’ve talked about before. These techniques and skills may not work for everyone, but I believe they’re pretty easy to understand and implement. Regardless, you should always try to give your players meaningful choices. Use any technique or skill that you find helps you do this.
I’ve previously written a post on learning to improvise for your role-playing games. It’s definitely hard to manage and can lead to some unintentional issues with story continuity if you’re not careful. That being said, it’s a valuable story-telling skill to learn and master. I find that many times when GMs rely on presenting the illusion of choice to their players they aren’t comfortable with their improvisational skills.
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s tough to learn how to improvise. It’s also something you have to continue to work on. There have been many occasions where I got caught up in the moment and glossed over a minor detail that changed the story or tone of an encounter. It took a bit of work on my part to fix that, but my players never knew, they had fun because in the end their decisions mattered.
Another topic I’ve talked about before is learning how to plan properly. Over-planning can cause the GM to expect a few specific options to be the only options in an encounter or interaction in-game. More often than not, your players will surprise you by thinking up an option that you would never have considered. It’s important to leave yourself some breathing room for these instances.
When you create a NPC, a setting, or any other role-playing scenario it’s important that you make a rough idea of the scene and NPCs rather than a detailed list of dialogue and options. Feel free to write down specific quotes that may be said by the NPC, but don’t plan out the entire exchange. Give them all personalities that you can use to figure out how they may react to a question or comment made by a PC.
Making an outline or a rough plan for some interactions helps you frame the overarching goals of the interaction. Planning out details is both a waste of time and encourages you to think only a few certain outcomes can happen. Do some planning, but keep things open-ended to avoid forcing your players to choose something specific.
Can you use the illusion of choice productively?
I did say earlier that it’s possible to use the illusion of choice in a way that doesn’t really harm player agency. In the grand scheme of things forcing your players to complete that goblin encounter isn’t the end of the world. In fact, they may have a ton of fun and will most likely never have known they were railroaded into the situation. The issue with using the illusion of choice isn’t that it’s used at all, it’s that it becomes used too often. Your players will pick up on this if their choices never impact the game. They’ll become less invested in the game and may just stop showing up entirely.
That being said, I believe that giving your players the illusion of choice should only be done when the choice doesn’t matter and it’s slowing down the game. This doesn’t mean that every time the game is in a lull you should use this tactic. Be vigilant and only use this tactic when they need help and the game is suffering due to a lack of direction.
Give your players a “yes or no” option for these types of scenarios or tell them about the rewards for doing so. They either do it, or they just don’t. Forcing your players to choose the left or right path when they lead to the same destination is an additional step in the game for no reason.
Leaving clues for them to track down the enemy also gives them a choice of perusing them. They may choose not to encounter the goblins in the first place. But now what happens? You have a group of goblins that you originally planned to have died this session. What do they do now? Who do they terrorize? How does the surrounding area suffer because of this choice?
These are all great options for developing plothooks later in the campaign. Perhaps they’ll never affect the party directly. In these scenarios I like to take that quest or dungeon I made and stow it away. I’ve already done the work, I’ll simply use it for the next campaign or group I GM for.
What are some techniques or skills you’ve used to help with combating the illusion of choice?