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.