Monday, February 8, 2016

Open Says Me

Hell of a week.

I am really under the weather, hit with throat ick, chest bleh, and other symptoms that make my already limited hours of sleep even harder to come by.

As if that weren't enough...

Lowell Francis at Age of Ravens diverts me from my daunting deed of daring to detail my dazzling days-gone-by to indulge in one of his dizzyingly distracting discussions!


Barkley, put the Wayback Machine on 'pause' and hand me some Dayquil TM, and some Nyquil TM. While you're at it, do they make Allquil?. I've got something I need to do...


Lowell has an interesting post in which he asks the question, "When Does Your Game 'Open Up'?"

By 'Open Up' he means the point at which the game the GMing is running gives more freedom, or at least the illusion of freedom, to the players and their PCs. At what point in the campaign experience do the players get to stop following the adventure path laid out before them and start getting to do what they want to do and go where they want to go.

It's an interesting question and one with a multi-tiered answer from your friendly neighborhood Barking Alien. I don't really have a fast and loose answer to this, even though I want to. To me it depends on so many factors that it's difficult to quantify in general terms.

I do have my personal preferences though as always.

I could say usually or perhaps most often...hmmm...maybe I could say, "When running 'X' " or even 'knowing my players', but all sorts of conditions apply and greatly change my verdict on the subject.

For the majority of my games (at least the ones run in my preferred style) I'd like the answer to be 'right away'. From moment number one of 'Act One, Scene One' the players should feel like their PCs are their avatars in whatever world/universe the game is focused on.

Unfortunately [for me] I am learning that the kind of open world, full sandbox style I enjoy most (see Storybox) is pretty intimidating, even off-putting, to many players.

What comes naturally for me (as it was just the way we played in our earliest days in the hobby) appears to be quite a shock to the system for some. The main issue it seems is that when you give people the chance to go anywhere and do anything, most people will sit tight and wait to be told where to go and what to do.

Even when given a general idea of what is going on in the world/story and given free reign on how to accomplish the task at hand, many gamers look for the arrow pointing to directions on how to proceed. It's a bit of the video/computer game mentality.

"Isn't this the Quest-Giver? He should tell us exactly where to go, who to meet with, and exactly how many of what type of creature to slay for their pelts. Right?"

Humans disappoint me so.

Now, let's assume for the sake of being able to respond to Lowell's query in a reasonable fashion and post length, that we are talking about an average Barking Alien campaign the way I run them now.

  • When do your games “open up”?

Usually around session four or five. The first 3-5 sessions are often the opening story arc designed to get the players familiar with the setting, the system, campaign plots, etc. After they have a handle on things, they are free to go about their business.

  • How much set up and establishment does a game need? What do you gain?

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I do a massive amount of pre-production game prep. Weeks to months in advance of the first sessions I create the setting, do research, come up with NPCs, plots and happenings, etc. The benefit is that for a monthly or even weekly game, I barely need to do any game-to-game prep after the first three sessions.

  • Are some reasons for keeping things locked down more valid than others?

I am not sure how to answer. The only reason I can see for locking things down is to help players paralyzed by their freedom of choice. Perhaps (and this is a big perhaps) to nail down the atmosphere and general feeling of the setting that the GM is looking for. This should be easy to establish before the game begins but I now know from experience that this isn't always the case.

  • What makes you feel like the campaign’s given you choice and freedom? Character choices, options for solutions, going wherever you want?

This one is hard to answer for me because it's one of the examples of something being very dependent on the nature of the game I'm playing (genre, theme, etc.).

Character choices? Is that really included in what we're talking about here? I wouldn't have put that in the same category as a game 'opening up'. I have seen many games with plenty of character customization options that are hell-a-ton railroad-y and posses a very closed-in feels over all.

  • Is not opening up the same as railroading? Do players read this in different ways?

I can't really say if players in general read this in different ways, I can only say how I read it. 

It's a matter of degrees. Not opening up at all is the same as railroading but the iris valve can be adjusted to open to varying sizes. You can open it anywhere from all the way, to half way, to pinhole sized, to not at all.

  • Why would tabletop GMs hold off opening up? Do they have different reasons than a video game?

I am not able to speak for video games or video gamers. I haven't been truly into video games since the World of Warcraft MMORPG was on it's second expansion (I think). I find them pretty but inevitably boring. Occasionally I will get into one but the magic lasts about six months to a year at best.

Some games, like Alien: Isolation, are awesome for that first run through and have maybe a bit of replay value but generally speaking it's like saying, "Yes! I saw that movie. It was great! I might have to watch it again one of these days" and I just never get around to it.

I'd rather be playing tabletop.

The open nature of tabletop RPGs and the many combinations of players, GMs, characters, events, options, choices, and motivations make it an entirely different animal in my opinion.

Even the best computer or video game RPG is but a single, albeit beautiful shell on a vast beach; that beach is tabletop RPGs. Infinitely superior graphics, unlimited options, and the most life like AI you can imagine, largely because it's missing the 'A'.

Now, to answer the question, 'Why would GMs hold off opening up?', my answer would be nearly identical to what I already mentioned above.

First, if I was trying to set a tone and illustrate the overall premise of the campaign, I would probably have a less open initial storyline to get the ball rolling in the right direction. I would still allow for virtually any reasonable (within the context of the campaign) approach to solving the situation that the players want to take, including not solving it at all (unless we agreed before hand that that was the sole purpose of the game).

If I have players who I can tell are intimidated by an open world, I will likely give them a mission to start them off. In some instances, I will simply direct them to a few local goings-on, and see if anything catches their interest (or inspires them to do something else).


In the end (and in conclusion), like oh-so-many things, it depends. It depends on the game, the genre, the GM, the players, and the style of gaming you prefer.

For me as a player, I prefer an open world right from the get go, with places to explore, activities to engage in, disrupt, or ignore, villains to battle, and treasure to seek. I might also want to invent a time machine, investigate an age old unsolved mystery, or go hunt a dangerous beast. I haven't decided.

Have you, the GM decided for me?

Barking Alien

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