Frozen By Choice

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

The easiest choices to make can seem like the hardest ones. After all, when you can do whatever you want in a Role-Playing Game, you feel like you should have no trouble coming up with ideas. But often, having so many choices in front of you can be scary, and leave you stuck.

A common example of OSR Style play that goes badly for the Player is like this -


“You’re standing in a field, you have a big knife in your hand, and the sun is beating down overhead. Birds are chirping in the trees surrounding the open grass. What do you do?”


“Umm… I don't know?”

In this example, the utter freedom of having any possible path in the world in front of them made the Player unable to decide on a single action. Maybe, they thought, they could go see if there’s a town nearby, or a stream, or check what’s in their pockets, or look at the birds, or start singing a song, or begin a years-long quest to see the biggest ball of yarn in all the land. All these thoughts clashed, and none of them won out. So they floundered and made no choice at all.

This often leads Referees of games to create an opposite problem, one of little to no choice, as they reason that a story thread should be picked up by the Players, or do things that they never agreed to in the first place. This is known in the gaming community as “Railroading”, in the sense that a train on a railroad never leaves the tracks laid down for it.

The purpose of a Role-Playing Game is for people to play together.

If one Player makes choices for the others, then it is not a game being played together, it is a show being performed by one person, and watched by the rest.

(There can, of course, be times when, to move the game along, the Referee makes small choices for the Players’ characters in the game, like maybe what they had for breakfast or whether they decided to wear clothes that particular day. This isn’t so much “Railroading” as it is “Not getting too wrapped up in details”.)

So, if Railroading is not the answer, but having total freedom is scary and makes people freeze up, what is there to do?

The answer is in Role-Playing.

This is the essence of what RPGs are about, as a genre of game. When stuck in a video game, there are only two possible solutions: keep at the problem until you solve it the way the coders who made the game coded it to be solved, or look up the solution they coded in and then do it. But when you’re stuck in a Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TTRPG,) there are usually hundreds, if not millions, of ways out.

In the above example of play, the solution isn’t to focus the Player on some specific quest, or put them in some dangerous place so they have to fight their way out. It’s to know more about what’s going on, both in the character’s own mind, and in the world around them.

That is called “Role-Playing.”

Why are they in that field? That is a question the Player should be asking the Referee. Where is the field, and how did they get there? Does the character know what lies beyond the field and trees in each direction? The answers to all of these questions tell you what the character would do.

All of this together is what makes the game.

However, even in cases where one knows all the information they need, it might still be hard to make a decision about what to do with your day. To that end, we’ve compiled a helpful list of some activities a person might get up to in a day, and a few ways they might react in different situations.

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