Tobold's Blog
Thursday, February 02, 2012
Linearity vs. Open World

Much has been discussed on this blog on the relative advantages and disadvantages of linear games versus open world games. Skyrim was widely hailed as a great open world game, but it also serves as example of the limits of computer roleplaying games in that respect: There are a *lot* of seemingly trivial actions that you can't do in Skyrim, for example moving a table or chair. In computer games only the actions that have been specifically allowed by the programmers are possible. So it depends on the game whether you can do things like breaking a window, moving furniture, or jumping a 3-feet high fence.

Pen & paper roleplaying games work the other way around: Players should assume they can do anything "logical", unless the DM tells them they can't. There usually are no unmovable pieces of furniture in a Dungeons & Dragons adventure. If a chair is printed on a battle map, and the player wants to move that chair for some reason, the DM will come up with a solution, a token that represents the moved chair or something.

So at first it would appear as if pen & paper role-playing games are the ultimum of open world games. But most of that is an illusion. The world only exists in the head of the DM, and to the detail to which the DM has prepared it. So if the DM has prepared a dungeon, the players had better enter it. About 20 years ago I once played as a player in a game of D&D that failed: The DM had prepared this Pharaoh's tomb from some bought module, but the module had a rather lousy story hook: The players got robbed by bandits in the desert, and find the entrance to the tomb while stumbling around. But nobody in our group wanted to enter that tomb. Without equipment, are you crazy? We much rather wanted to pursue the bandits and get our stuff back! The DM hadn't foreseen that, tried more and more to force us into that tomb, which we more and more resisted, until we all just gave up on that campaign.

With that experience in mind, I always tried to give my players all available options. But of course in previous campaigns that led to them sometimes refusing to do the adventure I had prepared, and I had to jump to the next one or improvise. Thus now I hope I can do better. Ideally I want to give the players meaningful choices. But "do you want to enter this dungeon or not" shouldn't necessarily be one of those. I tend to think of a campaign or an adventure as some sort of flow chart: It can have branches and decision points, but ideally the story and the incentives for the players should be designed in a way that they want to go along the story path I prepared. I will see whether I can manage that.
It sounds like you have the basis of improvisation down, but keep in mind that the players will always think up more options than you, and usually only when they are sat at the table during play. It is those moments where your story can be de-railed.

Whilst you have the responsibility of making the story as open as possible, the players have the responsibility of respecting your story choices - deliberately choosing options that will de-rail the story is equally as bad as a GM that force players down a path.
It is actually easier than it sounds, once you give up a little bit on the pacing. What your friend did was Railroading. What he should have done was Every Road Leads to Rome.

Players not want to go into the tomb? Fine. Let them chase the bandits. When they finally catch up, though... hey! The bandits ran into a tomb! Or a cave that all the tomb qualities (layouts, traps, encounters) in cave form. Or a building in town with an extensive basement complex.

If it sounds too ham-fisted, you can always have 2-3 different adventures/modules ready to go at any given time and simply fit the tomb in later.

What I found with my players is that while they enjoyed the kind of scripted gameplay experience I gave them in dungeons, they also needed time to do what they wanted, to get all the barfights and random violence out of their system. So, I let them. And they always ended up exactly where I wanted them to be, if not exactly when.
You ask the players what goal their PC is pursuing that would make the PC enter a dungeon. You take what they say and write it into the dungeon, along with a bunch of rumours they hear confirming it's in the dungeon.

Instead of trying to fish around for PC motivations, just ask.

Players should assume they can do anything "logical", unless the DM tells them they can't.

No, they can do what the DM lets them. Even if the DM really super thinks its logical what the player described, it's still just the DM letting you.

How many times does what is logical to one person is nonsense to another have to come up, before people realise logic, as in one single unifying logic, is not involved in narrated actions and narrated results.
simplest choice; the bandits take shelter in the tomb from an incoming sandstorm (or don't even bother with the sandstorm as Azuriel says).

The bandits can then die one by one leading deeper into the tomb so equipment is slowly recovered at a controled rate preparing the party for the big bad...
Ah, the good old days...reminds me of rule number one we held in our P&P group 25 years ago: The players always come up with something new.

And it's because you can react to each other's imagination that these games are so inherently rich. So some of our games took turns into completely different directions. Then, *You Are Not Prepared* (Hey Illidan, back to bed!), but it's ok (as Azuriel, Callan and peter already said).
"But nobody in our group wanted to enter that tomb. Without equipment, are you crazy? "

But you did also know that he'd prepared an adventure that relied on you going in there. So why did you not put your heads together and think up a reason why you might go in anyway? :)

In traditional D&D it works much as you've described with the players managing their characters and GM everything else. With a whole bunch of 'my character wouldn't do X!!!.' In more modern types of RPG, I think there's more emphasis on working together with the GM -- so you'd expect to discuss with your players their expectations and what sorts of adventures they'd like for their characters, and in return they'd also co-operate and go along with your suggestions.

There are various ways to manipulate players into going where you want, and 'winging it' is a real skill, but I think it's easier to just be on the same page in the first place so you don't have to.
One small thing that continually annoyed me in Skyrim is that the world is full of tasty food and drink but there is no reason to take any of it. I wish the game had implemented a hunger mechanic that would make you want to eat every few hours. Arx Fatalis had such a system but I cannot remember it in any other game (WoW pets maybe).

PS. Hint to Dungeon Master from twenty years ago ... players discover trail of dropped personal belongings accompanied by bandit foot steps leading into apparently abandoned tomb.
Re: Skyrim I think the game gives me 'uncanny valley' but not because of the character models. It's the equivalent for the game system itself. There's quite a bit of freedom yet some glaring gaps within that. So the little things you can't do can become very annoying. The closer a game gets to real freedom of choice the harder it is to have that freedom taken away.

I think regarding player choices in RPG gaming the answer depends on the group dynamic. Some groups will make things hard for the DM, others not so much. Once you're used to the players and how they gel (or don't!) as a group it makes planning easier. There'll always be the need for improvisation but you have to put limits on it.

In the example given I'd be honest and blunt - "the adventure is in the tomb, if you don't want to do it fine but then what do you collectively want to do? We'll adjourn for a week while I plan for that."

That said I've never needed abandon an adventure in that way. I play with friends, and they understand the session should be fun for the DM as well! I have recently ended a published adventure early as the last section was a contrived extended battle that seemed unnecessary; the players caught and killed an villain who was supposed to magically escape - I thought it a better ending just to stop there.

I like the flowchart analogy, although I wouldn't have used the term it fits my style well. I've always included alternate paths in adventures I've designed.
This is why the whole pen and paper thing never worked for me.

We we're simply too pedantic and anal and ended up disputing everything, or trying to be too clever for our own good, rather than rolling with it.

However, that was our failing and not the game or it's overall mechanics.
I've never been a DM but it occurred to me in seconds - and I see other posters have similar thoughts - that the solution is to let them follow the bandits but bring them to the tomb.

What I would be inclined to do is have them follow the bandits who hide out in another tomb just the same. Or maybe they make a big circle in the desert and come back to the same tomb. Inside they can
find horribly mutilated bandits with some of their equipment, and indications that the bandits found some treasure. If they want out then, at least the DM will know to get some more adventurous roleplayers next time...
I think it is strange you are so focused on trying to be "open world." Your most recent experiences with linear questing in MMORPGs has been that they are much better, but lack repeatability.

Well, you aren't planning on repeating your D&D campaign, are you? Does it not make more sense to be rather linear?
You can also drive players toward a goal by making their off rails options seem more dangerous. Bad weather, plague of insects, signs of powerful dangers nearby, etc. can make the tomb option seem like the safest, especially lacking gear/food/watert. Random wilderness encounter rolls always made my players reevaluate their decisions. And there's always divine intervention via the cleric who needs to remain favorable to her deity.

It's easy and fun to think of these solutions now, but doing it on the fly is far more challenging. Thus the tendency to over prepare which can put your adventure on rails and make you inflexible.

The best DMs IMO were objective and challenging, but at the same time were benevolent and clearly wanted us to succeed. Not so much the ones who just read the dice and proclaimed the outcome, or who seemed to try to trap us at every turn. Those you really want to outsmart and it devolves into PvDM.
Well, of course I can railroad my players where I want them to. But the point of this post was that by doing so I make the game less open world, and very linear. Sooner or later that will cause some backlash.
"The DM had prepared this Pharaoh's tomb from some bought module, but the module had a rather lousy story hook: ..."

You use this example of why an open world can fail when this is not an example of open world at all.

Here's the way I run my RPGs (1st edition D&D): I design a map and a world timeline of events. What this means is that no matter what the player decide to do, there's ALWAYS going to be something going on somewhere whether they decide to participate or not. For example:

March 3rd: Goblins invade town X.
March 8th: The King dies in distant city.
March 15th: Adventurers discover and are lost in a distant cave.
March 20th: The Princess is kidnapped.

None of these events have to be completely fleshed out right away. I keep a large collection of dungeon maps, random npc names, location names, etc to pull out at ANY time to use in case the party decides to investigate this stuff. All of it is interchangeable at any time. If my players decide to go off the rails, I pull out one of my random maps and interchange some major plot points into their new direction. I can keep the same storyline going, but not require the same location.

This is how I run all my games, like a sandbox. The players can do whatever they want, but I plant timed events along the way as hooks that they can choose to join or not.

Rule #1 when designing open world RPGs: Don't use prefab adventure modules!!!
Tobold, Check out Game Master Emulator by Mythic Games. It has so many uses, one of which will help you generate interesting adventures no matter what anyone says or does. I obviously won't link it here. But a quick search will find it easily. I highly recommend it as another tool for your DM toolbox. Well worth $8.
I'm surprised no one has suggested that the Bandits are actually using the first level of the supposedly terrifying Pharaoh's Tomb as a base of operations, knowing that no one would dare go in because of its terrifying reputation; an excellent place to hide out from the lawkeepers.

On a side note, the players are absolutely correct that they need their equipment before doing anything else. Their first choice should be to head back to their base of operations and re-stock.

The GM should take note of their choice to return - do they make it back without incident or does something else happen? Are they ok to write off their equipment, some magical?

As the players head back to town, maybe they meet a caravan that was also attacked by the bandits, but these guys are intent on heading after the bandits. A small group however wants to head back to town and are prepared to pay the players for protection. Either decision furthers the story, and the players decision reinforces which path they want to take...
There's a dirty trick, which works best for quick one-shot sessions, but can be used in campaigns too.

You can actually start your adventure with: "So this day you found yourself in a Dreadful Tomb..." and let the players come up with a plausible hook themselves. Was it sandstorm that forced them in, the rumors of riches, is it a pursuit or a rescue operation?

Many adventures start off when the players accept some kind of mission and/or enter some kind of dungeon anyway, so why shouldn't we assume that the quest was already accepted, and the heroes are already inside the dungeon? If you haven't much time for the game, you'll just jump straight to the action.

Roleplaying is a collaborative game, and it's in the players' interest to get the adventure started, so I think GM can share some power and responsibility.
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