George Jetson and Options
Anybody remember George Jetson? George was a cartoon character from The Jetsons, a cartoon show that began in the early 1960’s and ran for decades, still playing on Cartoon Network during the 90’s throughout my childhood.
George's job, every day, was to fly his futuristic space car to Spacely Sprockets, and press a button. In a futuristic world where nearly everything was automated (he even had a moving sidewalk to get him from his bedroom to his front door) he flew there to press a single button, then kick his feet up on the desk for the rest of the day. He would have nothing to do all day after that one action, and would have to wait all day before doing the exact same thing again. His contribution to society was over in seconds, and never featured any variety or excitement.
I got to thinking about ol’ George after a couple sessions of D&D I played not long ago. In the first, I played a halfling rogue who primarily used a bow. He scoots around the battlefield using his bonus action and reactions as a Scout to scoot around the battlefield, relying on his sneak attack to take care of his enemies. In that game, I got afflicted with a condition for 3 rounds that reduced my movement speed to 0... no saves, or any way to shorten the duration. We played for about three hours, and my character got to take three turns in that combat. Each time, my turn was over in about 20 seconds: about 1 minute of play throughout the session. I raised my bow, declared a target, rolled to hit, missed, and then ended my turn. I couldn’t use my movement or bonus action to affect my situation. I was well and truly stuck, and felt that I had only one thing I could do… that I was not a significant participant in the situation… that there must be something better I could be doing with my time than this… sound familiar?
The second time I thought about George was a session of Pathfinder. Some wolves attacked our party, and these wolves were a little different than the standard wolf. They knocked any creature they hit prone. No saving throws, just a knockdown. There are a LOT of ways to provoke attacks of opportunity in Pathfinder, and one of them is standing up. After my character got knocked down, he found himself in a situation where standing up would provoke an attack of opportunity that would not only deplete his already low hit points, but ALSO know him right back to prone, making the endeavor pointless in the first place. As a level one rogue in that system, there are not a lot of actions you can take that don’t incur significant penalties to the roll. The most effective thing I found that I could do was to attack from the ground, which still had a pretty low chance of success and (frankly) never succeeded for the duration of the encounter. I poured over my character sheet looking for something else I could do that made sense in character and had a decent likelihood to work, but came up empty. I felt pigeonholed into this one particular action, which functionally made no difference in the fight, wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing, and that offered no variety or excitement… sound familiar?
In both these games, I still had choice. I was free to use my action in a different way, but that choice wasn’t much of a choice, was it? I came here to play D&D, to help my party achieve their goals, and I want my character to be doing their level best at all times to help. So I *had* to do something, and hopefully something that could make a difference.
Sure, George Jetson could quit his job at the factory, or not press that button, but that’s not much of a choice is it? He needs that job. He’s got people depending on him: Jane, Judy, and Elroy. Having a choice isn’t the same as having “OPTIONS.”
Options are the fun part of D&D for me: not being constrained by any limitations save those of my imagination! Being able to approach obstacles from peculiar situations and crossing my fingers that things go as intended.
Options in D&D come from two places: encounter design and character design. The first of those is the responsibility of the Dungeon Master. When creating a challenge for your players, make sure that there are multiple ways to approach a situation that could end in success. In video games, there is often only one way to succeed: hit the glowing weak point, pay the shopkeeper to buy the item, solve the riddle to open the door. But in real life, and therefore in D&D, there are multiple ways to skin a cat. If the problem you present your players with has only one solution, then they don’t actually have any agency in solving it. They simply have to sit around and guess until they discover the way *you* as the DM think the issue should be solved… which isn’t very fun, and isn’t D&D. Remember: your job as the DM is to invent problems and challenges, not solutions.
The other side of that coin is that players should design characters that aren’t one trick ponies. If you have only one “button” to push when your turn comes up in an encounter, that “button” will start to lose its charm. Whether it is Divine Smite, Spiritual Weapon, Fireball, Sneak Attack, or Eldritch Blast, having only one trick up your sleeve makes for predictable, monotonous play. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, and you may miss out on some great opportunities in the game! Make sure when designing your character that you give them an arsenal of tools with which to approach the situations you find yourself in. Select spells and feats that offer a variety of actions, bonus actions, skills, and proficiencies that could come into play in a plethora of situations.
Variety is the spice of life, and variety is born from choices made in the presence of a bevy of options. Keep your D&D games zesty, unpredictable, and diverse!
Don’t be George Jetson.