This one has taken me a while to write up because I’ve made the mistake of conflating it with agency. It is related, but when we decided that this was an important characteristic of a tabletop roleplaying game I think we were at this point focused on what the GM/DM/storyteller does with those decisions. OK, so you’ve been offered some choices, made them, but where do we go from here?
This is where I might start taking about “sandbox” in opposition to “railroad” if I wasn’t getting tired of those metaphors. I admire those who could run a true “sandbox” at the RPG table; I am not someone who can improv everything on the spot without making a cliche collage. What I have done, and what we identified as typical of an “open world” video game RPG, is to offer a set number of areas that need not be done sequentially. This took the form of there being a castle with four towers and a central keep. Each tower was designed as a stand-alone dungeon with opportunities for players to make choices and face the consequences. In the end, I could have done a better job of making those consequences have more impact on the finale, but it made a big difference to have towers 1, A, i, and α rather than 1, 2, 3, and 4. It means a bit of work on the DM’s part (especially when balancing 4e encounters was the order of the day; one would have to be ready to run four different encounters rather than one), but I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in the DM’s chair.
Continuing with the video game metaphors, we also identified the Rockstar/GTA style of “open world” where there is a point A and a point B, but you can take any path through a grid of streets to get there. This does not mean there are no boundaries, because the storyteller still needs to be able to describe interesting things at each point, but it’s probably the most preparation-intensive way to do it when you’re playing a system like World of Darkness. It’s something I would like to try more of, though limited time and patience for being sufficiently prepared is a bit of a daunting challenge.
And then when it comes to the “railroad” the video games we thought of were the Legend of Zelda style (see the fishbone diagram I mentioned in the main post) and the Bioware RPG style, which is more of a curved line with many branches. You can play a lot of the game out on the branches, but there is a main arc to get back to eventually. In a Zelda type game, there are diversions, but there really is only one way forward. These more straightforward modes of progression can offer different levels of agency, but there is a much better defined way to measure progress in the plot. These work well when planning time is at a premium and I certainly don’t mind being “railroaded” especially when the other choice is to bang my head against the wall because I can’t guess what the DM secretly wants me to do/find. Many of our games end up falling somewhere between those, and that’s been OK even though it can sometimes make previous choices feel less important.
So, again, as in all of the rest of the series, I am not here to say that one way is better than any other, just that there are some that have worked better in some situations for me and my group than for others. I hope that this series, mined from the notes I took from that one particularly interesting conversation I had a few months ago, is something that you have found worth the time to read. Alastair returns next week with the next episode of Full Steam Ahead.