When building a playable world, there are a number of ways its creator can go about approaching plot and explorability. In my first world building post, I pointed out that herding players into confined locations can feel a bit contrived. Though this may be the case, there are reasons to do it, ways to disguise it, and different types of games simply demand this kind of approach. Why? Because it’s in this arena that believable world building and game design mix.
There are three methods of going about the development of story in narrative driven games. First, there is a linear style, which has a set beginning, middle, and end. It progresses clearly from narrative point A to narrative point B without any available player choices that affect the story track itself, though the intrepid world-explorer can often choose how to approach set obstacles or has the pleasure of figuring out their one correct solution. By and large, the player is along for the narrative ride. Next, we have a branching structure, which allows the player a few very meaningful choices in directing the outcome of the plot. Often, these choices open up alternate endings and change player access to certain quests, side stories, and resources at later parts of the game. Branching narratives have the potential to increase player engagement with a story by giving them a feeling of greater control and importance in the process of progressing through the narrative. Finally, there is the open structure, in which the player is truly able to explore the world, set their own goals and motivations, and is free to ignore plot points created by the world builder, or even invent their own.
Any of these modes can be used for creating and guiding a table top RPG; video games are overwhelmingly limited to the first two. A strong example of linear and branching plot creation in tabletop RPGs are the published game modules put out for D&D, Pathfinder, or any other game system with a large enough player base to warrant such products. By providing scenes, monster stats, NPC descriptions, and hooks for player goals, modules allow a GM to guide a player from A to B, and can provide scripted branches for significant player choices. On the video game side of the fence, linear plots have often dominated, especially in classic JRPGs like the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. Branching stories and worlds are not unheard of in the earlier days of RPGs (take Chrono Trigger), and they have become increasingly common in the genre (aspects of Skyrim, for example, or Arcanum), but one can run into false examples of this structure, where players are herded into the same outcome despite the apparently significant choices they have made. A discussion of the false branch linear style of game with examples, counter examples, and how they impact player engagement is a topic I’d like to save for another essay.
Open structure is a bit harder to achieve. In video games, there may be edge cases which allow for this type of design, but in general, this kind of world is only available through human interaction: the province of tabletop gaming. But even in a well-run tabletop gaming session with an attentive GM, it’s hard to tackle this kind of approach to plot and explorability. In an open storyline, players have a real sense of co-creation, because this is literally the case. They are actively participating in the construction of the narrative’s arc, not just moving through a story’s predetermined channel. Here, players’ desires and goals can be telegraphed or openly expressed, but aren’t always, which then requires of the GM a degree of improvisation and on-the-spot creativity which the other two modes either disallow (as in video games) or discourage (as in the use of modules). Handled poorly, an open narrative’s pressures on the GM are more likely to create belief-breaking scenarios and flimsy excuses to keep players out of unanticipated situations.
As humans are storytelling animals, most players engage with narrative quite readily. Due to the programming constraints of video games, a linear narrative is often desirable because the built-in story readily conceals the boundaries placed on exploration. No one questions linearity in books, film, or theater. Branching narratives have potential to create a difficulty here: the more meaningful choices given to a player, the harder it is to bring alternate possible outcomes to a satisfying conclusion within the confines of a video game’s design. That isn’t to say it’s not possible. The reward for successfully achieving this justifies the attempt; since the basic notion of an RPG is that of an interactive story, the more meaningful choices given to a player increase their sense of engagement and ownership in the storyline— as long as those choices don’t spread the storyline too thin. It’s a question of investment. Linear games, which are essentially a translation of traditional storytelling into game format, often navigate the question of investment with challenge (can any of you say that the puzzles and boss fights in the early Zelda games are easy?). Even in a tabletop game, a well constructed linear story can hook a player better than many other tactics. It’s when this aspect of linearity is mishandled that it becomes restrictive and shatters the believability of a world. It’s when the GM or game designer telegraphs the unfinished bits of their world by metaphorically placing large “keep out” signs all over their map that players can become frustrated with limitations. Challenges and learning curves are often more effective boundaries than messages to turn around, teleports back to safer realms, or a GM’s “Gee, I dunno.”