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Freedom's Just Another Word for Much Too Much to Choose: Option Paralysis and RPGs

They’ve finally done it, the players have made it to your big set piece. It wasn’t quite how you planned (not that ever is), but you’ve left yourself plenty of room to improvise. So much that… you have no idea which one to go with! Or maybe you’ve got a player who feels utterly incapable of coming to a decision if there isn’t an obvious course of action. Per the Oxford English Dictionary, “Option paralysis” (also known as “choice” or “decision” paralysis) is the inability to make a decision when presented with a wide range of choices, and it can take many forms at the gaming table… and even before you sit down! In an activity where our imaginations are frequently the only limiting factors, option paralysis is a near-universal problem. Let’s talk about the ways it can come up, and how we can cope with it. - B

B: I find this often hits at the very first stages of coming up with scenarios, especially if you feel like you don’t have a good starting point, but also when you need to start fleshing things out. Every idea you come up with (or pull out of reference material) seems equally good. At least at the table, you can try to adjust to what would work well with your players, but you can’t really do that ahead of time - especially if you have no idea who your group will be.

A:  I have often struggled with this as well. Even knowing who my players will be, the first few sessions are full of many unknowns. Some of that can be worked out in a Session 0 if you’re not doing just a one-shot: their characters, backgrounds, motivations, and hopefully what they’d like to see in the adventure/campaign. If you can steer that, or be decisive in your options, it should eliminate some paralysis. My “pandemic campaign” has actually been my most successful to date. I attribute this partly to holding a Session 0, but also to my decision to start things off with a published campaign. This eliminated a ton of decisions, and made the start a lot smoother than those of my typical campaigns. The storyline has diverged from the book significantly since then, but once things got started the  decisions got easier. Avoiding option paralysis on your starting adventure may be a whole different topic. There are a ton of great official adventures, and sites full of fantastic stuff from independent publishers.

Often though, players are also beleaguered with option paralysis at this opening stage as well. There are so many options for characters it can be overwhelming. How do you decide what your character is when you could be anything? And once you decide on who your character is, how do you decide what they do when they could try anything? The great thing about TTRPGs is that openness to your imaginations, but it can also be a pain if you often suffer from option paralysis. I think this is the point where players tend to just pick whatever is available right at the core of the book: Elf wizard or wookie scoundrel. It can help, but there are still a lot of options. Bugsy, what do you do when you see players struggling at character creation and right after?

: This is where I’ll pull the “Director’s” hat out of the collection GMs (Mad Hatters, all of us) have to keep handy and try to focus both on what the game needs and what the player wants to get out of playing it - it’s our job to find ways to take care of both, and it’s easier to nudge things in a certain direction once you know what that direction is. With beginners, it can be helpful to remind them that they can keep things simple, and certain character aspects will come together as archetypes found in established media or (as you point out, Andy) the rulebook. As they learn how the game and group function, they can add complexity to their characters both on paper and in their portrayal. Just because a character starts off as a Han Solo or Legolas clone doesn’t mean they need to stay that way.

It can be a little harder to help players experiencing option paralysis during the game itself if you're trying to keep from steering them in a particular direction or railroading them. The approach you take needs to be informed by the current situation: the paralyzed player, the rest of the group, where they are in the story, and the general energy and momentum. If you start suggesting options, make sure sure that they cover a wide variety of possibilities, and make sure to add more if the other players start making their own. Agency is one of the most important factors in tabletop gaming, and you never want a player to feel like it's being taken from them, particularly if they're already stressed about having to come to a decision. Feeling like you're forced to to go in a direction other people choose because you aren't able to decide fast enough is something that can ruin a game, and maybe even scare someone away from the hobby for good.

A: That is a great point about established media, and something I like to do when I’m playing - starting with an inspiration from a movie or book I’ve been thinking about, then adding an additional trait or quirk to them. This is something that can really help players develop their characters, even when they're based on favorite media. You can be a clone of Legolas, but obsessed with hats - finding new ones from different places and adjusting your style. You can be Han Solo, but with a penchant for whips and returning lost artifacts to museums. (Yes, I just combined two Harrison Ford characters.) You can mix books with movies and shows or even just roles in the party. Think about having the attitude and style of Han Solo, but you’re the party tank instead of the roguish nerfherder. This can give a player something to lean into when they aren’t sure what to do.

Something I hear at the table, and always dread, whether I’m a fellow player or the GM, is along the lines of: “Okay... I’ll just shoot another arrow at it, I guess.” This is the sound of a player in need of help. Someone who might have option paralysis, or feel powerless to attempt anything besides what they’ve already been doing. Worse yet, it's likely the sound of a player who isn’t even having fun with what they’re doing. If you’re at this table, take some time with that player between turns and go over what they feel their options are. You can make some possible suggestions, but be sure to ask “what's something you’d like to try if circumstances were slightly different?” Then work with them to try and make it happen. As GM, be sure to reward and cultivate out-of-the-box thinking. Players thinking about what to do are engaged with the game, and if they're engaged, they're probably having fun.

Of course, GMs can run into that same paralysis during the game as well. You’re likely juggling at least one BBEG, several different lackeys, and maybe a few other NPCs, all at the same time. Plus, you have all of the players to usher along through the world. When I start feeling overwhelmed with options, I try to give the NPCs I'm in control of something else to do. They'll have a message to send, equipment to repair, or wounds to tend to - some sort of errand to complete. At the very least, that will take a few tasks off the table and allows you to focus on more important matters. As far as your BBEG goes, it doesn’t hurt to try to plan out a few options in your head for party interactions. Consider what your villain wants, how they plan to get it, and what will happen if the party opposes that or attempts to negotiate. If you get caught off guard, it doesn’t hurt to call for a comfort break to give yourself some time to think, or, if you’re close enough to the end of the session, to wrap things up and leave the rest of that scene for next time.

B: Yes, just as when helping individual players make their own choices, you'll need to take all the current circumstances in account - including when it's time to start wrapping up. It's always important to keep in mind that the game is something being created for the benefit of the players (and not just your own ego), so making your selection based on what you think will be the most satisfying to them is usually a pretty good strategy. Just make sure that you're not always going with the obvious selection - surprise is pretty satisfying as well! Ultimately, I always let the clock make my decisions for me, and will start going with the things that best lead to a conclusion when it feels like it's time to start winding the session down. For some groups, that will be the big fight, and for some groups, that will be a chill mellow period following a major event. Pay attention to what's happening around the table and where everything needs to be going, and you'll often find the decisions are being made for you - you just have to make them happen.

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