As you've no doubt heard countless times before, one of the big evil words of roleplaying games would be "railroading". For those who haven't heard it, here's a brief summary for you: it's when the GM runs a game as a linear adventure. Player choices have no impact on the storyline, and no matter what the players do, the game progresses. Any alterations to the story are inevitably minimized, and the whole thing plays like a videogame, moving towards one conclusion. If you're lucky, you get a "two possible endings" scenario. The opposite of railroading is sandboxing, where players have complete control over there destinies, and can go anywhere that they wish.
It's often villified, for good reason, but this often makes GMs (especially new GMs) shy away from anything which might remotely be construed as railroading. That's a bit problematic, at least from my personal perspective...
See, when you give your players the freedom to run amok through your world, they truly run amok. They throw a healthy (and then unhealthy) amount of chaos into your governments, NPCs, plotting, and the like, forcing you to figure out what the ramifications of all those actions are. Usually, the GM can't handle the realistic consequences for, say, killing off a corrupt official in the dead of the night, and the power imbalance it might bring about, so the GM will typically handwave it, leaving the players with one impression: it doesn't really matter what they do, and all actions are acceptable.
A complete freedom for the players, though, is bad for another reason. This reason is more subjective, and it has to do with some observations that I've made, as a player. When I'm thrust into a situation, I like to know what some of my options might be. I'm not the type of person who will figure out how to blaze a trail out of absolute nothingness. I like to have some basis for my next goals and courses of action, whether that be tales of an enemy to fight, important NPCs to get information from, or clues to find. I like there to be enough hooks that I can follow the story that's out there.
Two Open Worlds
Mount & Blade: Warband is the game which got me thinking about this. It's an "open world" game: you wander around a dynamic world, doing quests for various nobles, building your army, raking in money, and trying to scratch out a living. It's an interesting formula, but what I find most interesting is the contrast with another, similar game that I play: Sid Meier's Pirates! That game is essentially the same, except that the delivery of the story is far more abundant.
In Mount & Blade, it's a lot harder to get a handle on the story, because there is literally none. Even the dialogues with characters aren't terribly interesting. Pirates, on the other hand, is bursting with flavor. It's also a tad formulaic (visit the tavern to get quests, repair your stuff in ports, report to the Governor to get promotions), but the formula ensures that interesting quests are always there, for you to choose from.
Tell the Players
Finally, something that Pirates has over Mount & Blade is, quite simply, transparency. With an integrated map and quest log, it helps you figure out where you need to go in order to do things, and what things you need to do at the moment.
This is probably the biggest thing that a GM can learn from these two examples. If you don't tell players where the goodies might be found, or at least show them what they can do to figure it out, they'll probably never bother seeking them out. Give them options, and tell them what those options are, and they likely won't take too much time running your world into the ground.
- Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!
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