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In an adventure I am currently writing, I want to force my players to make a choice between saving one of two NPCs. I think it's important that the players make a choice between these two NPCs to maximize the impact of the other one's death.

In a single-hero story, this type of dilemma works well. Imagine there are two characters dangling from the edge of two tall towers. The hero can only run to help one of them, and the other one will fall to their death. The player is forced to make a quick decision, and they make that decision knowing the consequences for the NPC they do not save.

My problem is in bringing this moral dilemma to a multi-hero story. Having two NPCs dangling from towers does not work, because two player characters could leap into action to save both of them.

Does anyone have ideas on how I could force the party to choose between two characters, and plausibly kill the other one? Particularly, I think the following characteristics are important:

  1. The whole party needs to be presented with the choice - not just one character.
  2. The party needs to understand the consequence of their choice.
  3. It must only be possible to save one of the two NPCs.
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closed as primarily opinion-based by Wibbs, Slagmoth, Oblivious Sage, Miniman, Dale M Jun 5 '17 at 23:05

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Never underestimate determined PCs' ability to find a third option. \$\endgroup\$ – Exal Jun 5 '17 at 19:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would say this also fits the "too broad" flag as it's an idea-generation / infinite list question. Someone could always come up with another option to do this, and there really isn't a 'right' answer. Perhaps it's better for Meta? \$\endgroup\$ – John Grabanski Jun 5 '17 at 19:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any requirements for your answer? I can think of dozens of scenarios that fit all three of your characteristics, but they all involve various amounts of handwavium and creativity on your part. Are you looking for a RAW answer? Does it need to be backed up by source books and source lore? Can the solution include things that aren't expressly outlined in the books? \$\endgroup\$ – Percival Jun 5 '17 at 19:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ What level characters is this intended for? You can use less convoluted set ups for this scenario with lower level characters. \$\endgroup\$ – jneko Jun 5 '17 at 20:21
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Trap

You could build some sort of trap ranging from simple to Rube Goldberg machine. The complexity of the trap will take time to figure out, and flipping the "lever" or button or whatever to "Release person A!" will automatically "Kill person B!"

For example, there's chasm and a ladder that can cross the chasm. But there's only one ladder. The victims are on the opposite side of the chasm, and there's [thing] charging towards each victim. You can use the ladder to span the chasm, but not in time to let both victims escape.

Required thing

Perhaps both victims have been critically injured. The priest can save one via spell, but only one in the time allowed before death takes the other. Or poison with one dose of antidote.

Or there's a key to open the cage, but it's made of a fragile material and will break easily -- it's obviously a one-time-use key. Your victims are each in cages... which cage will they open? You will probably want to add some sort of time crunch here, too.

Villain

Perhaps there's a super-powerful demon, dragon, lich, etc., standing over the victims with a death spell. It utters a calm "Choose one to live and one to die. Or else I kill them both." The players must choose. The creature grabs the other and vanishes before they can counter-attack. Or kills the other and vanishes, leaving the body.

Notes

The above three ideas all involve a countdown to doom. This isn't an accident. Give your players time to think about it, and they will try to come up with a way around your Kobayashi Maru. Players are sneaky that way. You will need to enforce the time constraints on the players as well as their characters.

Also, try to build these traps out From the view of the villain who created them. Why did s/he do so? What's the goal here, from that NPC's perspective? What abilities, tools, time, etc. are at the NPC's disposal? Were they rushed, or patiently working to set this up? Were they trying to build this ethical dilemma, or this is just a side-effect of some other thing they were doing? This will help you build a trap that makes sense within the context of the story.

Also, the previous paragraph will prevent you from making those insanely complex death-traps that only make sense in James Bond movies. That's a subtle way to say, If by some miracle, your PCs find a solution, go with it. If they think of a way to save both NPCs that you didn't plan around, that's okay. Sometimes villains make mistakes. The PCs and the players shouldn't be punished for it if that happens.

Don't forget to play out how the NPC victims are acting in response to the situation. Are they able to beg for their lives? Are they sobbing? In such pain that they cannot communicate? Perhaps one is offering to give up his/her life for the other? They should be active, and if the situation allows, vocal participants in the decision process. (As well as a distraction!)

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Trap both NPCs in a demi-plane. There are 2 ways to open the planes one way will drain the life force of one hero to open their plane, and vice versa. If the players refuse to choose then both heroes life forces will be drained and the power will from the draining will destroy a nearby town.

This trap was set up by some villain. If they attempt to leave the chamber before releasing one it will trigger the worst case scenario.

The heroes know each other and are both good friends and will never forgive the party for making the choice and neither will the village that reveers their local heroic duo.

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Force the party to decide together

If there's a possibility that one character can save each NPC, then both could be saved. If you want to force one to die, the party must be forced to unite in saving one. That can be done by creating a large enough threat that the party must work together in order to stop it (A big-ass monster, or a dungeon full of mobs), limiting options (A wizard can teleport any number of them to the location of either distressed NPC, but can only cast the spell once), or a situation that requires individual skills of each party member (a large barrier for the barbarian to break, a riddle for the wizard, and doors and chains for the rogue to pick through).

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The scenario you are presenting is one that can be solved by taxing the player's resource allocation sufficiently such that they can reasonably succeed at rescuing one of the NPCs, but not both. Time, as CM_Dayton pointed out, is often a critical resource here (both the player's time to plan and the PCs time to enact the plan), as are the PCs' skills, spells, and equipment.

Personally, I would make sure to include tests where the abilities of each individual PC would be required at least once in order to succeed. If the party stays together, they can rescue one NPC, but if they split up to beat the doom clock, their chances of rescuing either of them at all drop to near zero.

That approach doesn't work very well, however, if you as the DM require one of the NPCs to live. If the party splits up and finds themselves facing near-impossible odds, having a deus-ex-machina save one of the NPCs at the last moment can be intensely dissatisfying.

Depending on the specifics of your scenario, it might be possible to get the PCs to unite behind rescuing a single NPC if rescuing both would inconvenience the gaming group. As an example, if saving both requires splitting up the party, and the time to effect a rescue is short, then splitting the party isn't much of an inconvenience to the players, but if the adventure to rescue an NPC could span multiple gaming sessions, then half of your gaming group will be uninvolved in the game for extended periods of time, incentivizing the players to agree on a single target.

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