The Dark Knight movie had the quote ‘You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ If you look at various stories, you can see how many of them are temptation. Star Wars had the path to the Dark Side for Anakin and Luke, the promises of the various Devil religious symbolism such as Christianity’s Satan and Buddhism’s Mara, or even comics like Spawn and Ghost Rider. Looking at Exalted and World of Darkness, White Wolf really loves this sort of idea, where the temptation of more power can cause people to do things, as well as the keeping of the power they have. One of the best White Wolf examples of this is in the Shadows in Wraith: The Oblivion, where you have players playing wraiths, spirits who have not passed onto the next life. They are split into Psyche and Shadow, with the Psyche being the player while Shadows are intelligent foes, who can communicate, hamper and aid the wraith all in order to fulfill their primary goal of making the wraith serve Oblivion. These are being played by another player, used to tempt a player to have their Psyche do something. It is mainly a matter of what the Shadow wants.
In one of the Spoony Experiment Videos, Spoony talks about his experiences in Ravenloft, where Strahd used his Paladin’s desire to do good as a way to essentially have the Paladin work for him. Either you do what we want or you go against the code you honor so much. You hear about the Hippocratic Oath doctors take about helping those in need, no matter who they are, but every now and then in stories, you see how they put a doctor in a position to be tested. House had ‘The Tyrant’ episode where an African dictator was being treated and the team had to deal with their beliefs in this.
As you can see by those examples, the idea is that you want to challenge the players. Put them into situations where they need to decide which is more important to them. In Angels With Filthy Souls, I mentioned about making choices that matter. Instead of offering a choice like ‘Will you help these people or not’ more like ‘Will you sacrifice the life of your mother to save the entire town’. What I didn’t do, beyond some of the examples I showed, was how to create situations for the players to be challenged in, as you can see in the Spoony Experiments video.
In literature and film, it is always easy to give your characters no other options, no way out of a scenario. The writer has all the time in the world to come up with reasons the characters will act a certain way, why only certain options will be available to them, especially when you can write the story in any order and change it to suit your needs. Only the finished product ever gets into mass consumption, so people don’t know if you tinkered with the plot to make it suit your needs. The drama and suspense is manufactured to be there because it is how it was written.
Roleplaying doesn’t have that luxury. The more you work at designing a scenario, the more you will find yourself overlooking some solution. The Gamers: Dorkness Rising had a bit in it where the GM, Lodge, and one of the players, Joanna, were talking about the module Lodge was running the players through. He ran into the problem a lot of GMs have with trying to lead the players through the story and getting upset when they would not work with him. The party, like most, were acting out in part to rebel against being led and perhaps in part due to just wanting to play that way. It may be comedic, much like Full Frontal Nerdity and many other gaming comics, but a lot of players will act up in games for various reasons. Sometimes, they are in these games just to be weird and crazy.
To make choices matter, people need to attach value to the choices being made. I personally believe part of making it work is to slow play things, letting things build up and have players make their connections with the objects before you begin putting them into the mix. For example, introduce a new NPC in one plot, work with them for a while and have the PCs get connected to them. Make them central to a plot, maybe have them make a few side appearances, have them get connected to this NPC before you make them make a choice. Will they save this important NPC or will they go after another goal. Have it be time specific and it will have the players having to weigh these choices, figuring which they want to do. If you’re really daring or cruel. you can make it be about one of the PCs instead of an NPC. You can see a good example of the slow play, along with manipulation of beliefs, in the cartoon Xiaolin Showdown, with Chase Young’s obsession with Omi. It may be weird referencing a cartoon for this sort of thing, but it is well done and generally more straightforward than other examples.
Also, you can make the choice not being either do A or B, but a question of what the players will give up. Will they be willing to give up something or do something for the result they want. Giving the paladin a choice of helping people for an evil reason or going against their beliefs is an example, or the previous mentioned Xiaolin Showdown. Gold and other treasure will get the player to be willing to do things they might normally not want to do, but others may instead want power or a chance to prove they are the greatest. It is all a matter of reading your players and figuring out how to give them what they want, though you may not wish to make it exactly obvious.
The TVTropes Face-Heel Turn article gives a huge list of examples of why this could happen, so the idea is to take what the players interest is and figure out a way to make their pursuit of it be something other than what they thought. One of the biggest ways to do this is to use the ‘It’s true from a certain point of view’ that Obi-Wan used on Luke. Retcons in comic books can be done in RPGs, if you consider that, as Tobiah Panshin put in their book ‘The Game Master: A Guide to the Art and Theory of Roleplaying’, ‘an RPG world is like a Schrodinger’s Universe. It exists in an ephemeral and shifting state, where things may be simultaneously true and untrue. A thing only becomes ﬁxed in a single state when the players observe it. The players can only observe things through the lens of the GM’s narration‘. You don’t want to do it too often, but you can have them be in a situation where what they are doing is furthering them down a darker path, like Anakin working with Senator Palpatine. They have goals and objectives and with each step they take to achieving them is a step that can be used against them if you wish.
A lot of this sort of change in details is a lot like your standard ‘Oceans Eleven’ style where they cut to an event to show you what happened outside of the audience’s perspective, to make them realize this is not what they were thought it was. Sort of like a traditional Deal With The Devil where the player will realize that something they thought they were getting into was not exactly what they thought of. Many examples of these tropes exist so you can get inspiration from any of them. In telling a story, I sometimes like to follow the words of David Fincher in an interview regarding directing ‘The Game’, where he said in an interview that his film differs from others of that kind because ‘movies usually make a pact with the audience that says: we’re going to play it straight. What we show you is going to add up. But we don’t do that. In that respect, it’s about movies and how movies dole out information.‘
One of the biggest problems is that players will usually look to resort to force to get what they want, but if you give them situations where you cannot resort to direct force then things become different. My Wrestling With Player Interest article talked about bringing in opponents and putting them in positions to challenge the players, but there are many more examples. The TV Show Person of Interest had its main characters fighting a number of enemies on all sides so had to from time to time make a deal with one to take out another, sort of like deals in fantasy stories like Game of Thrones, where parties will make deals with enemies to conquer a larger threat. Can they trust the enemy to keep their words? Or if we start looking at kingmakers, what would someone be willing to agree to in their quest for power.
Do not be afraid to bend or break the tenant to not kill players when dealing with this, both because you can come up with reasons they are not dead and because sometimes this will give players a reason to put themselves into situations where they may not be thinking clearly. You can give one player the option to do something in exchange for another player to come back, as well you can give players the option to make an arrangement to come back from the dead. Of course, don’t forget, that devils aren’t the only beings that collect souls. There are multiple sides that can all play against each other.
A lot of this comes from your players, both in their ability and desire to play with the choices presented and also with their ability to not come up with some crazy way around the scenario offered. You can try all sorts of options to hem them in, but sooner or later, you’re going to have a situation where they manage to find a weird way around it. Let them enjoy that victory while you figure out another way to challenge them. The idea here is not to hem them into a corner by any means necessary, it is to have them walk through the door you opened by their own free will.