All of my favorite electronic games have one feature in common: choices have lasting consequences. Whether we are talking about Chrono Trigger, Fallen London, Sentinels of the Multiverse, or the new Life Is Strange, I love to be given choices to make and see what affect those choices have on the game world.
Obviously my love of consequences comes into play in the roleplaying games I run, and even as a player I try hard to act like my choices have a huge impact (even if it is just on my own character). This gets me into trouble when I really want to save the goddess of oasis but a low Empathy check leads me to believe that she is deceiving us, but usually it leads to a very fun and fulfilling experience.
So how do we make consequences matter in an RPG? There are lots of ways, I am sure, but here are a few suggestions.
One of the easy ways to establish that actions have consequences is to preplan them with NPCs. This is fairly easy to do since most of the work will have to be done anyway, but making sure the players can connect the dots may take a little bit of work.
So take some major event that your game is headed towards and figure out an NPC that is mostly responsible for that event. Maybe two lovers run away together, and the spurned fiancé of one of the lovers leads an army to attack the city they (and the characters) are staying in. Maybe a bumbling wizard accidentally summons a demon that the party has to hunt down and kill. Or maybe a jealous rival puts a bounty out on the party.
Now just make sure that, at least 2 sessions before the event takes place, the characters interact with the responsible NPC. Perhaps they have to put out a fire that the bumbling wizard starts, and he promises to study harder before he dabbles in such magic. Or maybe they foil a lowly noble’s plot, and he publicly declares revenge upon them. Or maybe they actually get a chance to convince the young man to run away with his lover. Actually, that is less foreshadowing and more…well, we’ll get to that in a moment.
Now when the event happens, you simply have to remind them of the foreshadowing event they witnessed, participated in, or even caused. Behold, the party has learned that what happens in previous sessions affects later sessions.
Another easy method to making choices matter is to plan actual choices for the players with the consequences set in such a way that it only seems like their choices matter. In other words, the stuff is going to happen no matter what they do, but it seems like it is different because of their choice.
Take the example above were we started to get off topic. A man is engaged to one woman but in love with another. He asks the party which woman he should marry, which means the GM is giving the players a choice as to which direction they want to encourage the man to go in.
Now whomever they tell the young man to side with will probably be their ally and very appreciative. The other will probably summon an army and attack the newlyweds (and the players). Now really the same thing will happen no matter what the players choose, but because it is a different ally/army based on their choice the players will still feel like they made it happen, even if you tell them that it was going to happen either way (which you can keep a secret, honestly.)
This can also work for good situations, like having the first couple the party takes the lost orphan to turn out to be the real parents, or like having the group try to figure out which slot the gem stone goes in to stop the collapsing ceiling trap and just declaring after they try one that they chose the correct slot. Done too often and this method will lose its impact, but done sparingly it can still be an effective advocate of choice and consequences.
Run With the Impromptu Improvisation
A lot of times players will want to do things that you have not planned for. This is usually a big hint to anyone running the game about what that player wants to accomplish in the game. So if you want to reward or discourage that goal please assign consequences accordingly.
Say a player is fascinated with a minor NPC and wants to start up a relationship with them, or even bring them along on their adventures. If you want to discourage this sort of thing, let it happen and then have them die in their first battle. You could even drive the point home by having their father come hunt you down. But if you want to encourage this sort of thing (without making the nonplayer characters more important than the player characters, of course) then give the party rewards for the skills they teach the NPC (they share some of their income or provide free services or even give players an extra fate point when they succeed in learning a new skill).
This method takes practice, as you really have an infinite number of ways a player can take the story in a different direction, but when you know the basics of what they do or don’t like then you will have the tools to build consequences appropriate to their actions.
The Aspect Way
One method that, as far as I know, is unique to FATE is to assign aspects. Aspects are constantly out there not only to define things but also to be invoked for effects. When someone or something is given an aspect that lasts (as opposed to a boost), then it changes that something for the rest of that aspect’s existence. Hence, it creates consequences.
Say for example your character fails miserably in a check to pay attention and thus falls asleep. Giving them an aspect of sleepy or lazy will come into play every time they try to pay attention in the future. And if they want to get rid of it, they will have to do something character-defining to get away from it (minor milestone or in-game quest).
This works well for places, too. If a party goes wild with combat that wrecks a city, why not put a Devastated Town aspect that will show up the next time they try to do anything in that town. Or if they saved a building from collapsing it can be a safe haven the next time the group visits.
Most players love the idea that their characters matter, and when their choices have consequences it really brings that feeling to life. I strongly recommend experimenting in your games with actions and consequences.
Clearly we have not covered most of the things that can go wrong with consequences. This is partially because I didn’t want to make the article too long, but mostly because I didn’t want to write about it. I may later though, if anyone asks about it.
Please do share your thoughts and ideas about actions and consequences in games.