Crafting Dilemmas in Tabletop RPGs

Today’s #worldbuildingMonday post is all about how to craft engaging dilemmas for your players.

Encountering dilemmas – whether it be combat, social, psychological, and/or physiological – is a huge part of the TTRPG experience for players. And defining through their choices how they individually/collectively hurdle these obstacles is a integral part of this slice of tabletop role playing games.

Today’s advice is some best practices around creating difficult-but-not-too-hard, thoughtful, and engaging dilemmas for your players.

  1. Presentation/Format

You first want to provide the players a clear picture on both what choice/decision is in front of them as well as the appropriate context for the scene and setting they’re in. “How do you get across the bridge?” “How do you open the locked door?” etc.

Set the stage, give the players what they need in order to make a decision, and empower them to roll with it. What’s around the bridge? How far is the drop? Can the players tell if it’s stable? What tools do the players have? etc.

Use these lead-ins to tell a compelling story that’s up to the players to fill-in and complete. Player choices and actions are the gravity for tabletop role playing games and you as the worldbuilder need to give them the proper alley-oop.

  1. Skills & Justifications

When a player or group of players make a choice on how to solve the dilemma/address the challenge in front of them, they are by definition invoking a skill to do so. In the bridge example, the players might craft a zip line to get over the chasm as the bridge has lost its stability.

There, the players have chosen to invoke Craft as the skill being used. No matter the TTRPG system, worldbuilders need to be aware of at least some of the main ways – via skills – players will use to solve challenges. By knowing and preparing for these paths, the worldbuilder can provide greater depth and nuance to the world the players exist in when playing the story.

Moreover, the justification a player might use when invoking a specific skill – i.e. Persuasion vs. Combat – can and should trigger bonuses to the roll of the dice. Rewarding player thoughtfulness, while not an intimate part of every tabletop role playing game, really should be; it incentivizes player investment by amplifying pay off for their own cleverness.

  1. Rewards & Consequences

Lastly, worldbuilders should prepare a spectrum of rewards and consequences for players depending on the outcome of the dilemma/challenge that’s put in their way. Resolve with great skill, thoughtfulness, and a high cumulative die roll, then the players need a system of rewards to keep them invested and moving on in the story with zeal.

But there also need to be consequences. Unless the players at the table agree they want an “easy mode” story – which is fine, but relatively rare – if players make significant and/or negligent errors of judgement and roll poorly, there need to be consequences for those actions. Worldbuilders need to keep in mind that there are those who are equally, if not more so, motivated by critique than praise. Consequences are a boundary in both life and tabletop role playing games that keep us in check and help us learn from our mistakes.

Design both rewards and consequences to be commensurate with the combination of decision making + the roll of the dice. Ensure the result, no matter when it lies on the reward/consequence spectrum, is fair and thoughtful.

Players respond well to systems that have a balanced approach in this area. And players who take the story/game seriously often love this approach as it rewards them for high levels of play while they know that once terrible move could jeopardize everything they’ve striven for thus far.

Worldbuilders would do well to be incredibly thoughtful in their design of these dilemmas as they’re one of the players’ most common interfaces with your story and, for better or for worse, are a main criterion for judgement for you as a worldbuilder. Use the above as a guideline in your design and continue to refine your own processes the more and more you ingratiate best practices into your worldbuilding processes.

And if you need any help, just leave a comment and/or send us a DM and we’ll help you work through it to get you where you need to be for your players.

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