You come across two paths that you can take to reach your destination. One is well-trodden but longer, the second is shorter but unknown.
Meaningful choices need to have meaningful consequences, an impact on the world and on the player characters. This, I think, is the greatest premise of tabletop RPGs.
The “Quantum Ogre” Problem
Whichever path you take, the GM will slap an Ogre encounter on you.
In a classical interpretation, if you’re playing a game that is about making meaningful choices, this is wrong.
So if I, as the GM, have one Ogre encounter ready, and the players have two paths, what is the correct way to play?
Collapsing The Wave Function
Everything not already set in the world’s reality, is in a state of possibility. Theze possibilities exist in the GMs mind, in random tables, and in player interactions. The trick is to recognizing the moment when these limitless possibilities collapse into a single reality.
What is the right moment in our two paths example? As “Ogre” is an inherent attribute of one of the paths, as soon as the players discover, or learn about the paths, before they make a choice, our possibility wave function collapses and both the paths and their attributes are set and now part of the reality.
One has an Ogre encounter, second does not.
The usual counter argument is that if you pull off the “Quantum Ogre” correctly the players will not know they’re being railroaded. It doesn’t matter if they are oblivious, this is a matter of principle. In a game of meaningful choices you should not steal the meaningful part from your players, whether they realize you’re doing it or not.
The Narrative Way
What about a narrative way? Narrative games teach us that an Ogre will show up in the most appropriate dramatic moment, usually the worst one from a player perspective.
As a Cypher GM I can introduce the Ogre as a GM intrusion, whichever path the players take.
Again based on our definition of meaningful choice, this is not the correct answer. In a narrative game players should be the main weavers of the narrative, with the GM balancing things out on the side. Players still need to make those meaningful choices, and you need to make sure that your GMIs don’t invalidate them.
A Better Example
The Ogre is not a great example of what is actually at stake here and the impact it can have on your game. Here is a real world example that comes straight from the old Numenera core book.
The adventure is called Tne Beale of Boregal, now free to download. It was the first adventure in the original core book, with step by step instructions for new GMs to follow.
In the opening scene, players are forced to make a choice (assuming they accept the scenario hook). They can either escort a girl to safety, or go with her brother to help him defend their village, or split the party and attempt both tasks. The trick is that the girl doesn’t want an escort and urges PCs to help her brother, and her brother urges them to escort his sister so he can return and fight.
This is such a great setup, that unfortunately has no impact whatsoever on the story. This is probably on purpose as both the NPCs are children and the consequences are rather grim. Either the girl doesn’t make it, or the village gets destroyed (or the party splits and someone dies). But these outcomes don’t get a mention in the book.
So who is Ogre in this example? The Ogre here is an absence of consequences from the player’s choice, thus making it meaningless. And it was a big choice, one of those where there is no right answer, a moment which defines a movie or a book, a Butterfly Effect, a proper Inciting Incident.
How to Make it Better
You can probably already tell what the is answer to that.
Follow the boy:
The girl dies. Her brother hates you. Her mother hates you. You are not welcome in the village anymore. You are not the heroes you imagined you are. This decision will haunt you. You are different now. And so is the world.
Follow the girl:
The girl lives. But everything she had, everyone she loved is now dead. She is alone. Broken. Her hatred towards you burns with a strength of a thousand suns.
Try both with partial success:
You tried to save them all. The girl, the boy, the village. They survived. But sadness fills you for your lost friend. She gave her last breath so these people could live. She was a true hero. And like all true heroes, she is gone. You hate the girl, the boy, the village. They are not crying with you.
Try both, with total success:
You made it! Calaval’s eyes, you made it. Everyone gets a medal except you, Boregal.