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).

How to determine what type of story you have:

  1. How obvious are the story threads and hints? Are any alternate hints supplied if the players do not take them up?
  2. Are NPC attitudes fixed or highly flexible in the setting? Are NPCs detailed enough to determine what their motivations or non-script actions might be?
  3. Do the peripheral npcs such as vendors, beggars, and innkeepers understand who the character are? Is an understanding of who the PCs are plausible within the story?
  4. Do battle outcomes need to be dictated to maintain the overall story?
  5. How dependent is the story on the direct intervention or action by the players? At what point in the story (save the day, at inception, or throughout)?
  6. Does the scenario provide recovery points, where it may be reset back on track?
  7. How is character death handled and recovered for in the story? Is it expected?

When the actions of the characters is tightly bound to the success or failure of the story, you can create a scenario where the GM is left wondering “what happened to my story?”. This is not altogether a disaster, unless the path the players took is at total odds with the remainder of the campaign material. When this happens it often means game death.

To avoid this I’d say the RPG team should facilitate the Illusion of Choice within the setting. This is when the players are given choices and options within the story, which have affect on the smaller story but either have no effect, or a subtle affect on the theme and flow of the story.

So how do you create and maintain the illusion of choice? As it is as difficult as it is time consuming, the playing team will need to accept requires planning, buy-in from all players, energy to affect properly, and is not always effective. In my opinion however it is the major factor in the degree of immersion the players experience in the storyline. Why is that? Because I believe that players are seeking feedback from and input into the events in the story, and the Illusion of Choice grants the character a sense of leverage on the world.

It is also important to remember that there are two types of illusion of choice; first is the illusion of the players and the characters where the players accept some knowledge of the illusion, but their characters are considered unaware. E.g. A npc who thinks they are a lost prince, or that the orc captain must be stopped within a particular timeframe, or they decide who is a rightful heir to a fortune, but the players accept that some choices were probably predetermined, or very unlikely. The 4th wall is often openly joked about in RPGs, or meta-gamed when needed.

The second type is an Illusion of Choice which the GM creates by modifying plans, plots, and scenarios to allow a degree of control, sometimes called “railroading” or “streaming” the characters; but the players are unaware that the choice is mostly irrelevant. The key here is to keep the challenges to have flexible outcomes which can be valuable on a small scale, have a somewhat ambiguous value or affect on the story in the mid-term, but can be re-crafted between sessions into major hooks if needed in the long term. The choices should also have short term ramifications which are recognisable, as this will lend a sense of importance to the choices.

e.g. It may not actually matter which of the npc heirs survives due to being chosen and saved by the characters; as the later events have the npc betray the empire in some way regardless. The actual circumstances of the betrayal should be consistent with the NPC’s personality, and hopefully telegraphed in a subtle way, but the betrayal will occur. Adding side flavour which indicates that other heirs which were not chosen would not have done this makes the previous choice feel powerful in the setting. Adding the back-up plan that an heir is found even if the characters have most of them killed also gives the scenario a safety plot to trigger if everything gets really strange.

Tips for constructing the Illusions of Choice:

  • Allow the npcs to get creative with solutions, and not expose all their motivations. Also make it clear in the manner of the game style and npc presentation that their solutions to problems are open. Pragmatically this will mean giving a GM a few options in a blurb fro how an NPC can get what they want. That flexibility give the GM options when the players do unusual things.
  • Over time also allow the npcs to reveal conflicting motives which dovetail to the players needs.
  • Expect players to not always follow the dictated path, and consider some short-cuts in the plot where characters can get back on track.
  • Consider in advance what happens to the campaign flow when a character dies, or the entire team dies. Have a strategy of introducing new characters.
  • Consider some constraints on the team personalities and approaches during character creation, so that the team minimises internal conflict.
  • Consider if the team personality would realistically be interested in, or have a similar set of goals or morals as the ideal story path.
  • Have some hooks from the character’s background in the main thread. Not just a peripheral mention, but actual hooks.

I think that’s about enough of a rant for now, and hopefully this is useful in sparking some thoughts and discussion.

Happy gaming … on-rails…

Related Discussions:

The third is a series of discussions on the illusion of choice in rpgs. Worth reading all of them.

Fear the Boot, episode 225 touches on this too.


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