Revealing what might have been in D&D is something that we always want to do as DMs. You don’t want your hard work to go to waste, so why not tell them what they could have done?
Revealing what might have been in D&D seems like a good idea, but it stifles growth, the impact of player choice, and minimizes their story.
Why is this so harmful though? What can telling your players about what might have been really do to you and your game? Well, let us take a look.
Pros and cons
Revealing what might have been in D&D does have some pros and cons. It seems like this is a good idea at first. Nothing bad comes to mind, so lets look at what you are actually giving the players when you tell them what could have been.
- Players get to know what could have happened.
- The DM doesn’t get to waste work.
- You all get to revel in a good idea that was made.
- Epilogues are great for this.
Seems like a reasonable list. Not everything is bad, but what are the cons?
- Players lose the pressure to make decisions since they will know what could have happened.
- The DM can frame what would have happened as the correct path.
- The players lose some agency.
- Tension is lost as decisions don’t hold as much weight.
- Immersion is lost.
- The game is no longer only about the players. They see the world as the DM does and not as players. Which decreases investment.
- The players might get mad if they made a ‘wrong’ decision.
- DMs cannot re-use material.
- Players lose creativity.
There are of course more pros and cons, but when you give it some thought almost all the cons counteract the benefits of the pros.
Players knowing what could have happened makes them lose a sense of pressure, immersion, and creativity. The DM work that you did now isn’t able to be ‘re-used’ or brought into the story in another way, and the players could have chosen wrong. Or at least, felt that they chose wrong and might lose the need to be creative to solve both problems if there are multiple.
This a lot to take in, but in short the cons outweigh the pros.
We will describe the cons in a little more detail to explain cons like ‘immersion is lost.’ The pros are what come to mind first. This is why most DMs want to disclose to their players what would have happened. But there is one other thing that we don’t consider in the pros. Epilogues.
We talk a lot about epilogues in our article on How to end your D&D campaign here, but isn’t that revealing what might have been in D&D? The short answer is, yes. Yes it is.
The only time you should really reveal what might have been are in epilogue instances. After the campaign has ended, you can talk about all those extra choices.
This isn’t restricted to just talking about what happens to the characters after the campaign. It is about every decision that they would have made.
This is okay since the campaign is over and no past choices will come back to be used, or affect the players immersion. They have already played the game! It is over, and nothing will change in that campaign.
You might not want to disclose everything though. Why Tolkien didn’t disclose everything to us was simple. “If I revealed what was over the hill, then I would need to make mountains behind it!” This is from memory so it may not be 100% accurate as a quote, but the idea is there. If you reveal what the players didn’t know then you would need to have more behind to retain interest!
So even after the game, you might want to be selective with what you reveal. Your players will have a special attachment to the campaign, so it is best that you don’t reveal everything and make it less memorable.
Attachment to the game
Revealing what might have been in D&D can destroy player attachment. There are many ways that this can be done.
First, players become less creative.
They don’t strive and stress to solve problems in the most optimal way. If your players have lets say 2 options before them, they won’t think of how to solve both since they could just figure out what would have happened if they did the opposite. With that pressure, players might do something crazy. This is what most good DnD stories are made of, so let them go a little crazy!
Second, players are less invested.
They lose the attachment to the game since it is no longer about them. We as DMs know that the world is bigger than the players. If they up and left then the world would probably be fine without them. The players don’t need to know this though!
Players are in their own special little bubble. Everything that they do makes major changes in the world around them, and thus it seems like the entire world revolves around them. They are right to a point, but this makes them hyper focus on their characters to enjoy the game and make the best decisions possible.
This increases immersion and makes D&D more about your characters than the world. It becomes less like a video game since everything is personal. You don’t want to lose that by introducing the other paths that could have been.
This also stops you from re-using material.
Re-using material is a bad name for it. Repurposing sounds much better since you are just repurposing the material. We talk about it a little bit in the article “Am I railroading my D&D group?” There we go over the basic premise.
If your players don’t go down a path, you repurpose the material to a different part of the story.
Revealing what might have been in D&D kills this option. You are no longer able to repurpose that material and all your hard work has gone to waste. Sure, your players might know about it now but wouldn’t it be better to have them play through it?
If not play through the material, why not adjust it for later? A cave is easy to adjust. Just change the monsters and a tweak a few things here and there for a side quest. A one shot when other players don’t arrive and you would normally have to cancel. Or just repurpose the content to be part of the plot later.
Instead of going down the right path and saving a woodworker’s daughter make that woodworker sad that no one can find the daughter. If the captive in question was a magic user, just make that magic user show up as a shopkeep later. It is much easier to work with a character that you have already made instead of starting from scratch.
The last and possibly most important reason to not reveal what might have been is player reactions.
If have ever tried revealing what might have been in D&D you might have received a negative response. Players start to question you a little bit about the story, ask why that was even an option, or just feel bad for not picking that choice.
Very rarely do players actually feel happy when they hear what could have been. It might (if you are lucky) be a brief bout of laughter which is quickly stifled. That is the best case scenario. The worst case can lead to a shouting match or anger.
They are picking on your plot which can be personal, and their characters are already being picked on since the story is about them. The characters should also be personal to the player, so this is just a perfect concoction for disaster.
We want to think that player reactions will be grand. They will praise our ingenuity and make us happy that we revealed other aspects of the world to them, but it just doesn’t work that way. You might get a rare instance where this works out, but those are in the minority.
Don’t reveal what might have been to your players. The cons heavily outweigh the pros even in their reactions.
Revealing what might have been in D&D to your players seems like it is a good idea at first, but it isn’t. You can reveal what could have happened after the campaign is over, but even then it is is debatable if you should.
The cons far outweigh the pros, and your players almost never have have a great response to these revelations. Rarely you will get some positivity, but most of the time it is not going to be good. At worse, the player’s might be personally attacked or get angry. It isn’t worth it.
In game it can make your players less likely to try things, be creative, or take the leading role. We went over the many reasons as to why, but it just isn’t worth it to tell your players what could have been.
This is a common mistake that most rookie DMs make. I myself have made it and have to remind my self to not repeat this mistake sometimes. I just hope that I have helped you avoid this mistake and made your games a little bit better.
This has been Wizo and until next time keep rolling!