Are You Suffering From Option Fatigue?

I think we’ve lost our way. Over the last two decades or so there has been a general rush (perhaps even a stampede) toward ever increasing amounts of choice in our games.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


While I love Pathfinder and its rich complexity, I don’t want games so stocked full of options I need dozens of hardback books to keep up with the available options. Having that many options is utter madness and leads to choice paralysis. (For more on my take on the Paradox of Choice check this article out).

Do you know what is better?

A good story, exciting challenges and memorable characters.

Of the three, a good story and exciting challenges are fairly self-explanatory.

But what do I mean by memorable characters? Frankly it doesn’t really matter what mechanic you use to slay your foes. To me, as a player and GM, what’s important is the character behind those mechanics. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook has an amazing amount of player options within its covers. With seven races, eleven classes (if you ignore the different flavours of clerics and wizards) and hundreds of magic items, spells and feats I defy anyone to have exhausted the various options within that book. I’ve been running Pathfinder since the playtest and I certainly haven’t. I don’t think my players have either.

As a Player

Instead of focusing (or obsessing) over which new cool feat or spell to take instead spend time on your PC’s non-mechanical aspects (personality, background and personal development). That’s what sets your character apart from a piece of paper with some numbers and a name scribbled on top.

(Incidentally, these aspects of your PC’s design—personality, background and suchlike—are the elements of the game hardest for publishers like me to sell; imagine the sale figures for Complete Personality or Ultimate Background!)

As a GM

From one GM to another: it’s okay not to allow every option under the sun in your game. Sometimes less is more. Stripping away extraneous options allows you to focus on the game’s bedrock.

Focus is a wonderful thing. It provides flavour and clarity; it strips away the “noise”—the unimportant and extraneous distracting crap we seem to be filling our games with these days. It enables us to concentrate on what’s important.

Instead of spending hours going through umpteen books in search of something new the PCs haven’t faced before instead focus on crafting exciting and memorable quests, opponents, encounters and adventures. That’s what will live in your’s (and your players’) memories.

The Design Challenge

Gygax once said that the hallmark of a great player was the ability to think imaginatively and creatively.

If you are a player, here’s a design challenge: take one of the standard, “boring” race/class combinations—for example, a human fighter, halfling rogue or elf wizard—and in a short paragraph describe a compelling, unique and flavoursome neophyte adventurer you’d like to play.

As a GM, do the same thing, but take a standard monster—for example, an ogre—and make him unique, flavoursome and memorable. Make him an NPC your players will remember for ages after the encounter is over.

(And, if you want post your PC or NPC in the comments below!)

Sometimes New Options Are Awesome

That all said, sometimes adding new options to your game makes it more awesome!

Thoughtfully chosen options can add to the style, theme and flavour of an adventure or campaign. For example, back deep in the midsts of time, we played The Savage Tide (a D&D adventure path printed monthly in Dungeon). To complement play, we made extensive use of Stormwrack (a book of nautical options) which greatly added to the fun. Of course, almost all of us died but that’s besides the point.

I haven’t played it yet, but I suspect the options in Occult Adventures greatly enhance play in the Strange Aeons adventure path.

These are just two examples, of how new options can enhance play. I’m by no means against the thoughtful addition of new options to my game. I am, however, against mindlessly adding new options to the game for no apparent reason beyond “but I own the book” or “someone said it was cool”.

What Do You Think?

Am I mad? Should I be strung up and beaten with nettles? Or am I tremendously wise and sagacious? Let me know, in the comments below.

Want to take the design challenge? Leave your compelling PC or NPC in the comments—I’d love to see what you come up with!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

9 thoughts on “Are You Suffering From Option Fatigue?”

  1. I would totally buy Complete Personality or Ultimate Background! If you offered them in a bundle, even better!

      1. I’m thinking it could outline ways to link Background/Personality and mechanics.

      2. I would also buy Complete Personality and Ultimate Background, probably more than once so that anyone who wanted them but couldn’t afford them could have them as well.

        … yes, I see the irony in saying I want more books in response to a post saying that we should keep things simple.

  2. Quite often the most touching game experiences I have had have come through the simplicity or denial of options. If a game is trying to tell you a story, it makes sense that that story will be more focused the less opportunity it gives you to stray from its central messages. That being said, when a game has been designed specifically to give players free reign, a large amount of amazing things can happen.

  3. I agree, and often new material is just adding new mechanics to existing classes/races/features which can cause power-creep. I love “reskinning” features (assuming the base feature was balanced), to allow player to do something they want to make PC more memorable. At least then you know how the mechanics of the “new” feature interact with the rest of the game.

    Also, I would add that the examples you gave where bonus supplemental material made the game more fun could be described as niche knowledge. What I mean is naval/nautical knowledge is not nearly as widespread as “camping/hiking/pub-crawling” and thus having some added mechanics are both beneficial to game play but also allow anyone to learn some basic terms and use them IC. I realize few people have ever fired a long-bow or swung a battle ax, but conceptually its easier to play that out IC than even talking about hoisting a spinnaker or how ships use tacking to sail “into the wind”. Special mechanics/PC options for specialized knowledge/settings will allow more improvisation and flavor during play.

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