Some time back, Extra Credits did an episode about the difference between choices and consequences. I’m going to talk about them a bit now.

Choices reflect two or more options presented to the player. The player then picks one or more of the options, reflecting a choice. Surprisingly perhaps, there are a different kinds of choices.

Consider standardized tests.

You have “fill in the blank” choices. Lots of old school video games would have you enter a password by typing it in, making it possible to share answers between games without necessarily needing to undertake a ‘quest’ or whatever to learn the answer. (Sometimes the answer is in the game manual and acts as DRM.)

There’s also “multiple choice” questions. An NPC might present you with several possibilities for you to choose from — sometimes “A, B, Both, or Neither.”

Following this same logic, you could have “essay answers” but let’s… not.

Now, Consequences. Any time you have consequences, they arise from an action. If the player opens a chest, they get whatever comes out of it. Huzzah! If the player burns down an orphanage, the paladins come after him.

A choice which leads to consequences must often be a binary yes/no affair. For consequences to be meaningful, you must know what they will be in advance.

You can subvert player expectations with bait-and-switch consequences but you can really only do this once. Do it more than that and the player won’t trust you anymore. They won’t want to do anything for fear of what follows.

In summary, Choices and Consequences must be made clear ahead of time in order to be significant, otherwise you’re railroading your players with your dumb plot, or leading them by the nose without allowing for player agency.

You can subvert them… once.

When you’re designing your encounters or your adventure or whatever, it’s a good idea to take a look at the stuff that you want to happen and figure out whether you’re offering the players choice or consequence.