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This is my first campaign as a GM and I feel that I need to give my players more options, or the ability to make more decisions, and sometimes when they make big decisions, I feel like I am not prepared. So this makes me feel like I have made a linear campaign.

For example, one of my PCs has decided that he wants to go help an NPC on a quest while the rest of the group wants to continue on their main mision. I am not scared of them splitting up the party, they have done it before, and I know what i am going to do to make them come back together. I just don't know how to make this PC's decision to feel rewarding to him.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If there is any way for us to answer this question we are going to need a lot more information. What have you done previously in the game that makes you think it was linear? Have the players said anything or complained? What is the PC's goal and what are you trying to do to help them? These questions would be a good start. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jan 3 at 21:55
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Welcome to the RPG Stack Exchange! This is a problem that lots of new GMs face, and I have some ideas that might help. First, I'm going to address the specific example that you provided, and then give some more general tips that I try to use when I'm planning and running games.

Giving Players a Rewarding Sidequest

  • Understand PC motivations - your players are telling this story with you. In this case, your player decided that their PC felt that it was important and valuable to pursue this adventure. Why? Why does that specific PC care? If you can answer that question, then you can use that motivation as the reward. Maybe the PC has a personal connection with this one NPC and wants to strengthen it to establish a contact or become friends with them. On the side-journey, you can lay a trail of bonding moments for the two of them- conversations and places where the NPC allows for a deeper connection. Maybe the PC is on a quest for vengeance for a misdeed that a minor villain did. Let them punish the bad guy or feel like they made progress toward that goal.

  • Question PC Beliefs - Think about what the PC believes in, what they value, and how they typically act. Then engineer scenarios that force them to reevaluate some aspect of that self-hood. In our previous examples, the PC who wants to make a new friend possibly believes that everyone is fundamentally good at heart. So maybe on the side quest, the PC comes across a character who stealing money from poor people and who doesn't even need it. The NPC argues for violence since this person is clearly evil. Does the PC stick to their values? Do they change their mind? Either way, it's going to be interesting for everyone.

  • Refer back to the sidequest after it's over - Have you read the Harry Potter books? One of the reasons that they feel so rewarding to read is the constant interweaving of small details. Nothing is ever brought up only once. You can do that too. Maybe the PC finds a small fortune in foreign coins. The PC has never seen them before, and no merchant will accept them. But later, the party encounters a traveler from a distant land who shows them some of his country's currency and it's the same! If the PC kept those coins, they are now wealthier than they were before. If not, they feel regret. Their decision mattered.

Making Player Decisions Matter

  • Don't plan too much plot - The key mistake that most new GMs make is trying to write a complete story as if it were a book or a video game and they were the only story-teller. When you're playing an RPG, you are telling a story with your players. They should be able to decide where it goes, including making some large scale plot decisions. If you plan your entire plot in advance, you will limit their ability to contribute. Instead, I advise you to plan modular components- settings, NPCs (with a focus on what motivates each NPC), and a general idea or two for future plot. Your medium-specific plot can be planned up to 3-4 sessions out, and very specific events only be planned right before the session in which they are likely to come up.
  • Build in key turning points - When you are designing plot points, think about what decisions might be present. Don't try to predict what your players will choose, rather think about all the available options and plan to present multiples as viable. Make a plan for each of those. Maybe a child runs into the inn the PCs are staying in bleeding and crying, asking for help because his village was attacked by monsters and his mother was killed. Build in a choice point. Maybe another patron of the inn points out that the monsters are attacking because a neighboring nobel is cutting down their forest. Now the PCs have a few clear options. They can go to the village and physically defend it. They can go to the nobel and either fight or try to convince her to stop destroying the forest. Or they can choose to stick to their previous quest and not help at all. But you should be prepared for at least those three options. And when you intentionally build in options to your story, it will be easier to know what to prepare for.
  • Shorter game sessions help - I'm not sure how long you're playing for right now, but it can be helpful to stick to just a couple hours so that you limit the risk of players making decisions that blindside you and then wanting to pursue that choice for a few hours.
  • Goldilocks Technique - There's a strategy in negotiation called "goldilocks-ing." Basically, you have some choice that you want your players to make but you want them to feel like they had options. So you suggest three options, one that's too hard/ambitious/dangerous/lengthy, one that's too easy/safe/a shortcut/unrewarding, and one that seems to be somewhere in the middle.
  • Recycle bypassed content - just because your PCs chose to go a different way doesn't mean that the rest of your planning becomes wasted. An NPC from one unused town becomes from the town they end up going to instead. A puzzle that you designed but your players never saw appears in the next place where they DO need a puzzle. A clue could be hidden in an NPC's house or in a book that your player picks up. Entire plotlines can be given makeovers and can reappear somewhere later. Your players never need to know.

I hope that some of these help! Good luck!

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This may sound sort of flippant, but the best way to reward him is to, well, reward him. Consider the character's motivations for helping the NPC, and his motivations overall. An altruistic sort may be rewarded by a heartfelt thank you and knowing that he's made the world a better place. More pragmatic sorts might also enjoy money, or promises of aid later.

As for narrative aspects, you don't have to do anything right now, if this is a campaign that you're writing. You now have an NPC with ties to the players (or to one player, at least). Put him in your back pocket to pop up later, when you find yourself in need of an NPC. Bring him back at least once, and your player will likely be quite pleased with the narrative impact he had.

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Welcome to RPGSE!

While some of it will be subjective, IME there are some things that make choices more engaging.

Informed Choices

A choice made in complete ignorance may as well be replaced by a coin flip; avoid that. If you're presenting a genuine choice, make it so that when the PC or party approaches the metaphorical crossroads, there's already some information about how this may influence the future in major ways.

Layered Choices

Make it so that choosing something now opens up a different set of choices later down the road. E.g. choosing to save a rival results in later getting an option to grudgingly join forces when facing a bigger fish (but only an option, as such an alliance of convenience should have downsides of its own!).

No IWIN Buttons

When setting up a major decision, avoid presenting one that has no downsides to speak of. It's fine to have situations where there's one obviously right way to act, but such situations aren't perceived as choice situations.

No GAMEOVER Choices

There some computer games which present a few options, all of which make a certain amount of sense to pick in-character, but if you choose them, they put you on a path to an inevitable gameover - in a few clicks if they're merciful. In worst cases they instead make you stuck, unable to proceed past some required point. At all costs avoid presenting such choices to players in a tabletop RPGs. If a player has a PC choose something like that spontaneously (without being prodded), very seriously consider giving a few hints about the outcome and ensure there hasn't been a miscommunication that lead to this.

A Touch of Inevitability in Hindsight

The first advice was to make choices informed. However, it's good not to go all the way with that either. Make some consequence of the choice unfold as a surprise to players and/or characters. But in a way that once the players think about it, they see how the sum of circumstances logically lead to the outcome eventually faced. The hindsight aspect of inevitability is good for plots in general, but I think it applies even more to choices. And who knows, maybe a more attentive and insightful player manages to predict this inevitability earlier than you expect; this happens at times, though since the GM usually has a bird's eye view of the hidden events of a campaign, it's easy for the GM to underestimate the difficulty of making such conclusions while wearing a player's shoes.

A Gift That Keeps On Giving

Choices can be made to be felt more rewarding in general if most choices keep producing more ripple effects down the line, again and again. Such as a recovered minor but unusual technology turning out to be moderately useful in a series of situations that occur 10, 30 or even 100 sessions after the initial choice. While at first this tends to remind of the importance of one choice, once this becomes an established pattern that is seen across multiple choices, all choices start looking more rewarding because players begin assuming that they'll also keep on giving. (Note that conversely, reoccurring negative consequences of a choice also increase the choice's perceived importance, but for some players such an experience can be unfun.)

This Content is Lost Forever

A way to emphasis the gravity of a choice is to ensure, and convey, that depending on the choice made now, something 'big' will become unavailable forever, with no chance to come back and 'pick it up' later.

No, you can't save the blueprints of the enemies' airship if you chose the easy path of sabotaging their factory by arson; no, you can't explore other solar systems anymore if you collapsed hyperspace to trap the invasion of horrors from beyond the galaxy; no, you can't tolerate living in a robotic body for long ever since your mind has been changed by the attainment of psionic powers; no, you can't ask Charon for a second chance at life ever again, because you were spotted binding the souls of the dead to skeletons for your army in a desperate defence against the Dark Lord's siege.

Again, there's some subjectivity regarding how much of that is too much and how little is too little - keep your players' personalities in mind an make adjustments. But when you want to make an unsubtle statement about the choice being very serious business, throw in 'permanently lost' content.

Consider your stance on Meta knowledge

In some games, players are never deliberately given knowledge that their characters lack. In others, it is perfectly acceptable to say 'You failed this roll, so your PC didn't notice that she got secretly poisoned during the banquet; there are no symptoms for now . . .'. Which approach to use depends on the gaming style of the group / game line / etc. Make sure everyone's on the same page about which approach is in use at the start of the game.

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