Linear or Open Storylines for Campaigns?

A GM has many choices in the style and modes in which their games are played, and in particular today I’m writing about the choice between game plots which follow a strict path, or games that have open options. I know that it is not just a binary choice, but is in fact a choice of where between two extreme points the GM wishes to present the story. For the purposes of brevity though I’m considering the two extremes as either an open story presented in a wider world, or within a linear storyline where the players must follow a strict plot. In the course of sharing my ideas the areas of gray between these positions will be nudged too.

In spite of having an opinion that I doubt will change through having this discussion (with myself) I am open to all the areas between the two polar extremes; with the caveat of how they are communicated to the players. This post is also rather long, so grab a coffee if you’re keen to read. The post also contains some commentary which may be controversial if you are a devotee of either side of the discussion; I make no apology for this – it is after all my opinion here, not universal truth.

Firstly I’ll start by saying that there is no right answer. A linear story and open story cannot be measured with identical tools, but they can be contrasted. The choice of “better” varies with GM, and by team composition, and by each players personal perspectives, and also by the type of RPG being played. It also varies according to the time the GM has to place into the crafting and background running of the game, and where the material is coming from.

If a GM is short on time to create a game then store purchased modules can be a good way to get a core of campaign material together. I guess it is arguable to what degree this helps the GM in the end (and varies significantly by source material), but it does impose certain initial constraints on the where the story can go, and what can be discovered. Using a fixed module should give the RPG group a story to be followed, and a series of objectives. It should also be congruent with the game setting, so that the challenges and opportunities of the setting are exposed in the story. Now how much choice (or to what degree the story is open or linear) will depend on how the material is presented in the module and how the GM chooses to execute the material.

A purchased module will typically have a basic story arc, and expect the players to follow it. Some material will demand the story is followed, and offer little alternatives. Along the way the players may be expected or enticed to side-quest, may find the objectives were not what they seemed. I’ve seen some examples where the overall story was a simple hack’n’slash fest in a well detailed setting (Undermountain, et al), and other stories which are basically small threads and settings only and the GM has to craft a story around some themes and NPCs (much of the ArsMagica’s source material). Most modules are somewhere between those, where a timeline, NPC set, event list and a series of maps and foes are detailed, and the rest is to be integrated by the GM.

Something that is interesting is that over the years I’ve been playing, it seems that pre-written modules are less effective in providing a coherent story when they are very long, and expect the players to follow an overarching story consistently. This is probably more to do with the understanding of the players have in the module as it contextually fits the setting than the actual plot writing, and we get back to the idea of open vs linear stories when we consider how much leverage should be applied to the story when the players start to deviate from the “script”. In my opinion a longer story requires better handling of deviations, or perhaps I should say it requires a set of re-hooks throughout the story to help keep the players on track, and engaged.

I propose that nobody likes to play a game where they have no choice. That type of experience is basically a fixed story, and at its most extreme basically removes the need for players. Or to put it another way: it changes the actors into an audience.

Likewise a totally open story can be terrible for players as well, as they have too much choice, and may not actually find the story amongst all the options. Given too much choice many characters may not act at all. How many heroes in popular fiction actually had a choice? Most stories that I’ve experienced are settings where the heroes had little choice except to follow the path. E.g. in the Lord of the Rings saga (an incredible story with some really strange diversity in the story hooks – like the visit with Tom Bombadil vs the corruption of Saruman), I’m pretty sure that Frodo would have happily just given the ring to somebody else if that was an option; or flown in and out in a day, rather than trek for months.

A side topic of the open vs fixed storyline is also what context the game is run within. A game such as DeathWatch is one where the characters have a very narrow perspective on the world, and all come from similar backgrounds (all toons are DeathWatch Space Marines). This creates a set off story rails where deviation from those rails becomes very hard to justify for both the players and GM. Having recently been playing in a game “on-rails” it can be very effective at gaining inherent acceptance of the railroading.

In the DeathWatch example the team are given missions and objectives which are appropriate for a squad of elite special forces combat experts. Missions are typically a combination rescue, investigate, reinforce, destroy, retrieve tasks, A scenario of lore heavy negotiation with middle management types with complex layers of political mechanics would be very unusual for a DeathWatch game (I suspect the marines would shoot someone).

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