At the heart of every good roleplaying game are players making meaningful choices, which lead to exciting consequences, astounding victories, or shocking revelations. Sometimes, those meaningful choices can prove challenging for players to make and may present a dilemma, which is defined as a difficult choice between two or more equally undesirable alternatives. An effectively implemented dilemma can provoke a strong emotional response that your players will return to long after the campaign has concluded. They may view these decisions as campaign crossroads for their Investigators. We think that the England Chapter presents an excellent opportunity to present dilemmas to your players in the form of the crafty, upstart Brotherhood cult leader, Zahra Shafik. Before turning to our enchanting agent of conflict, we can touch on the presence and use of dilemmas in tabletop role-playing games.
Dilemmas in Horror-based Role-Playing Games
The typical published D&D scenarios and campaigns do not rely heavily on dilemmas for their players. On the other hand, Horror-game enthusiasts will have much more exposure to these types of situations. At Origins in 2019, we played in a body-horror scenario, The Search for Brian Boru by Shannon Mac, which ran as a series of dilemmas where players decided whether or not to sacrifice portions of their bodies to resurrect the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru. The game hinged entirely on roleplaying and a series of dilemmas with the characters suffering the progressive effects of their decisions before returning to their families after release by Fae-Mi-Go. In the end, they succeeded in restoring Boru to power and ushering in a new age, but at an incredibly high personal cost. The only conflicts in this scenario were personal, but the session was deeply memorable.
Dilemmas in Call of Cthulhu
The Call of Cthulhu (CoC) game system features mechanics intended to create dilemmas. Do you study a Mythos tome for useful knowledge even though your Investigator may suffer debilitating insanity? Should you cast that strange spell to potentially save your party despite the fact it will rapidly drain your life force? Should you push that Jump roll to reach the other side of that pit or hope that there may be another, less dangerous way around? These common dilemmas set CoC and its horror-based peers apart from other power-based settings, as they put the Investigators on their back feet and can foster a persistent feeling of unease. Playing in a game system that clearly establishes the stakes lends further weight to meaningful choices the Investigators make.
For dilemmas to succeed, they must allow for two potential true choices. It cannot simply consist of a really bad choice and an obvious less bad choice, or a well-delineated railroad where the horrible choice must be selected for game progression. At the time of the decision, there must be choices, each with apparently distinct outcomes. These outcomes may be true consequences or those imagined by the players themselves.
It’s important to bear in mind though when constructing dilemmas that while the choices may vary, the long-term outcome need not differ. For example, your Investigators may accidentally drop Africa’s Dark Sects as they flee the horrific Chakota emerging from its pit. They must face the choice of risking grievous harm to reclaim this valuable book or fleeing to safety. At the time of the meaningful choice, they cannot predict what will happen next. During this tense moment, they must decide to abandon the book or risk their lives.
You may choose to present the book later to them as an item recovered by Lieutenant Poole’s officers. While this decision ultimately nullifies the consequence of fleeing without the book, it also rewards players for making a smart, but difficult choice. In the same vein, if one of your Investigators suffers mightily in an attempt to retrieve the book, it would be reasonable to deliver the tome to the group in return at some later point. Either way, they will remember their difficult decision whenever they consult Africa’s Dark Sects.
Many campaigns and scenarios may not directly present and provide answers to dilemmas, as they may be perceived by designers as divergent routes, which may result in two completely different paths of play. Rather than providing explicit instructions, the creators have presented you with inspiration to create dilemmas specific to your players. One of my favorite settings, Delta Green, excels at presenting their GMs (Handlers) with a deep and dark range of dilemma seeds. A Handler may simply pick and choose between the many options provided for maximum effect on the Agents.
As the Keeper, though, you can draw upon the information provided by designers and introduce dilemma branch points. These may be the result of planning or in-game improvisation. Like us, designers cannot always anticipate your players’ actions and the subsequent effects on your game, but you have this intimate knowledge and can craft tailored dilemmas that speak to your players. We offer a few options framed in the context of interactions with Zahra Shafik that may help you create dilemmas interesting to your players.
In the London chapter, the Shafik and Gavigan factions provide excellent dilemma fodder. Ultimately, your Investigators will likely want to destroy both of these cult leaders, but along the way, you can arrange for a tug-of-war between the two factions as they seek to exploit the Investigators for their plots. You may have Gavigan and Shafik present conflicting offers in exchange for information with the London leader dangling downstream information about the Egyptian brotherhood he seeks to undermine, while Shafik can provide more immediately pertinent intelligence about the London sect, such as Gavigan’s secret rooms or the dates and locations of the cult’s rites. She could alternatively promise to reveal the identity of the Pale Viper in exchange for eliminating Gavigan. Expect dishonesty by all three parties with escalating consequences as the Chapter reaches its climax.
If your players concern themselves with the blood of innocents and public safety, you have been presented with a wealth of potential dilemmas. In our campaign, Zahra Shafik convinced the Investigators to break into the Penhew Foundation and retrieve Gavigan’s tomes in exchange for information. To prevent reprisals by Gavigan, Shafik offered to accuse the Foundation’s innocent cleaning staff of the theft. Our Investigators agonized over whether to suffer the consequences of their burglary or allow the staff’s death (or later sacrifice).
Artifacts and Tomes:
As mentioned above, Mythos magic and knowledge offer excellent avenues to craft dilemmas. Not only will players face the mental and physical costs of dark eldritch arts, but they may also be required to face difficult choices in how to dispense with these tools. The campaign book frequently points out items that serve as cultist lures, and the Mirror of Gal, possessed by Zahra, is one such artifact. In our campaign, Shafik revealed the function of the Mirror to the Investigators as both a demonstration of her power and as a means to tempt them into collaborating with her.
The introduction of this powerful scrying device immediately presented the Investigators with several dilemmas. First, the sorceress tempted Irina independently by demonstrating how to use the mirror, which both revealed that Shafik could watch their every action, but also seduced Irina into seeking more magical revelations from the cultist in exchange for the party’s collaboration. This created a potential inter-party dilemma where Irina may potentially forgo the group’s goals in pursuit of more power and knowledge. Any attempt to betray Shafik will pose a dilemma, as the Investigators now realize she may be observing their actions at any time.
As previously mentioned, Zahra enlisted our Investigators to steal Gavigan’s tomes, which presents another dilemma. Do they wish to surrender every tome, attempt to study them first despite the demand for an immediate return, or renege on the deal? Will your emboldened Investigators follow up the Foundation heist with theft of the Mirror to obscure their actions? It’s plain that any sort of alliance with Shafik will be fraught with danger and her powerful artifact only raises the stakes.
Investigational & Strategic Dilemmas:
By this point, your Investigators realize that they have committed to a long game in pursuit of the Carlye Expedition and its underlying dark secrets. Given the scope of the campaign and the many interlocking adversaries, your group will be faced with immediate and long-term Investigational dilemmas.
The New York chapter avoids blurring the lines between adversaries and allies; however, the training wheels come flying off in London. If England serves as their first stop on their international voyage, your Investigators should be presented with dilemmas where choices to reveal or withhold information will open and close doors for them. For example, they may elect to lay all their cards on the table with Gavigan and begin to suffer swift consequences. This may lead to a dilemma in future encounters with other NPCs, such as Shafik where they must decide what can be safe to reveal. Even allies such as Barrington may react negatively to “outrageous” accusations and bizarre conspiracies.
You may also wish to introduce dilemmas when your players reach the end of a chapter by complicating the choice of where to travel next. Shafik could reveal two important clues about events in Kenya and Egypt, by mentioning a cadre of important cultists planning a pilgrimage to a sacred Kenyan site while she intends to rendezvous with the unnamed Egyptian Brotherhood leader in Cairo for a critical ceremony. You may decide the specific consequences of their choice, such as an advantage of timing, increased danger, or the risk of missing a unique encounter. In the end, this decision may not alter the outcome of the campaign, but the dilemma should have some clear cost.
Zahra’s Dilemmas in Our Campaign
As our England Chapter progressed, Zahra offered escalating overtures to our increasingly suspicious Investigators, who delayed accepting her offer to help take down Gavigan and the unnamed leader of the Egyptian Brotherhood. She presented her vision of the Brotherhood as a means to restore Egyptian identity and cease the cycle of unnecessary violence. She alluded cryptically to a reborn sisterhood under the leadership of a benevolent new leader.
Sensing a trap, they debated the choices and decided by session-end that the best course of action would be to murder Zahra in cold blood during an exchange of tomes at her apartment. After extensive discussion amongst themselves between sessions, however, they decided to accept her offer out of fear of dire consequences awaiting them in Egypt.
Their choice came too late, as their initial refusal motivated Zahra to initiate her own devious plan. The shocking discovery of a mutilated “Zahra”, dead in her flat, spurred our Investigators to take decisive action against Gavigan. Meanwhile, the calculating cult priestess watched patiently alongside the Investigators in the guise of Yalesha.
Dilemmas, not Distractions
While dilemmas provide an effective means for generating meaningful choices, they can potentially disrupt the flow of the game if your players spend too much time out of character debating choices or arguing with each other. In such situations, you will want to draw them back into role play with an impatient NPC or another, more immediate meaningful choice, such as a whammy. Some dilemmas may be time-sensitive, and you may want to establish a clear discussion limit. An effective dilemma will stimulate action and excitement rather than stagnate play.
Dilemmas should have significant consequences, but they do not have to be overwhelmingly dire. Not every choice needs to be a life or death decision. Players will reach conclusions more quickly if they don’t fear complete obliteration. Save the truly high-stakes choices for your chapter climaxes. Once the players select their option, reveal some consequences, so they may appreciate the results of their judgment. Send some of Gavigan’s cultists to harass them or leave a threatening message from Zahra. By the end of their second main campaign chapter, be it London or elsewhere, your players should be deeply concerned about their safety and the looming threat of Nyarlathotep and his minions. By continuing to present them with dilemmas you will keep them engaged and entertained as they continue their dangerous adventures.