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Deciding on Game Linearity

By Skimble

Roleplaying games don’t have to be like any other storytelling medium.

While branching or interactive stories have been developed to one extent or another in other media, nothing can rival the flexibility afforded by the dynamic nature of a tabletop roleplaying game session.

In a book, video game, film or a TV series the narrative is pre-defined or, at best, built with branch points that enable the consumer to select from a limited number of choices. Even “sandbox” or “open world” video games that offer self-generated content provide only limited flexibility in the primary story experienced by the player.

Contrast this with a tabletop roleplaying game, where the player(s) can theoretically do anything that fits within the constraints provided by the game’s rules and its setting.

In practice however most games have a degree of structure and linearity imposed upon them by the GM. To an extent this is necessary; without having any idea what is at least likely to occur, how can the GM plan ahead in preparing his sessions?

The question is, how much linearity is too much?

Railroading – All Aboard the Plot Express!

The most severe form of plot linearity, and the most reviled by players, is commonly known as railroading.

Like an engine riding on tracks, the railroaded game goes in only one direction.

The GM has plotted the story from beginning to end and does whatever it takes to make it happen exactly as he planned.

Player choices can have a trivial outcome on events as they unfold and can alter the flavour of the game, but at no time do player actions convincingly alter the direction of the story.

This has the effect of making players feel as though they might as well be reading a novel instead of playing a game and causes a lot of frustration and disillusionment.

Example:

The players are sent to rescue a princess from a dragon. When they refuse the King has them arrested and held in an impregnable prison until they agree to go and rescue the princess. The road to the dragon’s cave is straight and passes through valleys, forests and box canyons that mean they can’t divert to somewhere else, or alternatively by a strange coincidence if they manage to divert to a different place the dragon turns out to have been there all along. On rescuing the princess a small army of knights turns up to escort her and the players back to the King’s court for the final scene.

Positives of this game style:

None. Please don’t do this, okay?

Negatives of this game style:

Your players will hate you.

The Directed Plot

One big step down from railroading is the directed plot. In this case the GM has prepared a strong plot with a defined beginning, middle and end and then sets the group loose. This game style allows true flexibility in the player’s actions, but failure to engage with the directed plot will result in consequences to the characters that may be significant as scripted events occur irrespective of their interference.

This is a much more balanced play style and, I suspect, forms the backbone of gaming. Even open games will often introduce short or medium-term plots in this style to give the players something to do along with their own activities.

Example:

The players are summoned by the king and asked to rescue the princess from a dragon. Turning this request down will lead to them losing favour with the king and court and being forced to deal with the consequences that arise as a result. If they agree to pursue this task, they are free to do so however they wish. The world is open and allows them to roam where they like, though the GM notes that if they don’t get to the princess by a certain date, she will have been devoured.

Positives of this game style:

This style of game is useful for short games (e.g. convention games) and for introducing inexperienced players to roleplaying.

Use of a directed plot ensures that the players always have something to do when they aren’t pursuing their own projects and generally keeps interest in the game high.

This style of game also most closely resembles classic literature and is appropriate to games hinging on a particular story concept.

Negatives of this game style:

Having a directed plot with a timescale attached can be frustrating if players are more keen to spend game time pursuing their own objectives.  The GM must also be cautious not to cleave too closely to the plot as written and to ensure that the players are allowed flexibility in how they approach it.

Welcome to the Sandbox!

This style of game dispenses with linearity altogether, because it dispenses with a plot altogether.

The GM creates a setting and NPCs with which to populate it, then asks the players to create detailed characters with their own objectives, drives and interests.

Then he sets the players loose on the setting and lets them do whatever interests them.

Example:

There is a kingdom. The players are all noble warriors attached to the king’s forces, and each of them has his own holdings. They each have life goals, interests and points of contention with other players and NPCs. What will the players do?

Positives of this game style:

The players can do anything supported by the rules and setting. The stories that emerge tend to be satisfying to the players as they result organically from their characters. Together the players and GM collaborate to tell stories about the lives of the people being played rather than simply playing through a pre-defined story.

Negatives of this game style:

This is a very difficult game style for people to get used to who have never roleplayed. It also works poorly if character’s aren’t well defined with their own goals and interests.

This is probably the hardest play style for a GM to pull off as it requires a lot of preparation in respect of the organisations, NPCs and so on in the game, and also as it requires a lot more improvisation than other types of games.

This type of game really doesn’t work for short games, e.g. convention games.

The Hybrid Game

In this style of game a mixture of approaches is used. The basis of the game is usually a sandbox-style game but the GM supplies plot hooks that are intended to draw the players into directed plots that last for a greater or lesser amount of time. Ignoring these plot hooks as they arise is likely to cause consequences for the players due to events occurring in the world with or without the players taking any actions.

By using plot hooks that are in key with the characters’ motivations and personalities the GM can increase the likelihood of any given plot hook being followed without having to railroad characters.

Example:

There is a kingdom. The players are all noble warriors attached to the king’s forces, and each of them has his own holdings. They each have life goals, interests and points of contention with other players and NPCs. The princess is captured by a dragon and the King asks the players to rescue her. Alternatively the players volunteer to do so as it’s appropriate to their characters, as the GM knew they would…

Positives of this game style:

The best of both worlds! The players get the satisfaction of knowing they can do anything appropriate to their characters while also having defined plots to interact with in between their own activities. In addition the fact that events occur with or without them gives a sense of verisimilitude to the world and increases immersion.

The nature of the hybrid game also means that their characters are fleshed out with detailed motivations and interests, encouraging deeper and more interesting roleplaying.

Negatives of this game style:

It can be harder to maintain a single overall theme or mood in a game of this type, although careful selection of the directed plots offered and background events occurring can assist in this.

This style of game also requires a lot of work on the part of the GM, both in preparing the setting and NPCs as per sandbox games and in developing interesting directed plots.

Over to you!

So what do you think? Do you agree that railroading is always to be avoided? What game style do you prefer? Let us have your thoughts on this subject in the comments below!

One Comment

  1. avatar

    Ian Warner says:

    It’s a cliche but no plot survives contact with the players.

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