I’m going to be running a longish campaign again soon, for the first time in over a year, and as such it’s been on my mind quite a lot (for other things that have been occupying mental space, take a look at some thoughts on a card game I’m designing).When deciding on how I will GM the game, I tend to take quite a few cues from the type of game I would like to play. This is tempered somewhat by the players’ expectations and the fact that I’m running the game for people I may not know very well, but it’s more about what I enjoy as a player. So, what do I like, and what don’t I like?
Well, I dislike a railroaded game any longer than a simple adventure that lasts one or two sessions. If you’re working on a narrow time frame – and I have for games that have been run at events etc – then those confines mean that you will have to keep your players on the straight and narrow. One good trick for this, and it works if you totally commit to the pretense, is to keep them going where you want them, but fake a little bit of despair. As if the group has pushed you off plot and then you have to come up with something killer to bring it all back together. I know it’s a bit dishonest, but the players will love thinking that in a short game, that’s probably been played with other groups in the past, they’ve broken the boundaries and made the game their own.
For a longer game, what I love is a sense of a huge open world. Actually, that’s not quite right; the sense of a huge open adventure comes a little closer. I’ve played games where we’ve barely left one or two city districts, and been very happy knowing that there was still countless things to do, people to interact with, and places we could go. This feeling was helped by a GM who made it clear that player actions would guide the plot to a conclusion. So this is what I want to do in my next game, a sprawling adventure where consequences of actions will drive the plot forward. However, I’m running for a gaming society that meets one night a week, and the game will be finished by the next summer; that means that a pure sandbox is out of the question.
That’s not a bad thing, as I think that sandbox games aren’t always the best way to run games. Sure they offer a world of possibilities, but they can also mean a lack of resolution or an ending that fits with the expectations of the players who have had an awesome adventure. Not everyone wants to carry on playing until they become a warlord, ruling the local area with a band of mercenaries at their disposal. Some people just want to know that the threat to their way of life has been dealt with and that they can now reap the rewards for dealing with the problem. To make this work for me, I draw your attention back to the header at the top of this article.
My game will be set in a huge and sprawling metropolis, and after the first couple of sessions – during which I will be leading the players a little, just to get them used to the setting and system – I hope that my players will take advantage and explore The City. They will find plenty to do, and an awful lot of places to go and people to talk to. As they’re walking around they will stumble across a few hooks and seeds that I’ve planted around the place. Which ones they take a swipe at will let me know the way they expect the story to go, and from there I will be able to see a way to get them moving towards the end.
What I don’t want is for the players to see what’s that far ahead of them. Instead I want them to enjoy the freedom to make decisions and live with the consequences. My solution is make sure that the players know that just over there, whenever they’re ready to take a look, there’s something cool that should help them out. As long as it’s done with a hint of subtlety, there should be no feeling of railroading, instead just the plot moving forward. As an example – and not one I will be doing, in case any of players end up reading this – the characters could be quite happily planning a job of their own, researching how to use explosives maybe? They get put in contact with a guy, who likes where they’re coming from, but needs a little something doing before he’s free to lend a hand. It’s nothing major, but for the sake of them helping him out, he’ll waive his usual fee. This job could easily lead onto the main plot, giving plenty of opportunities to drop in other important NPCs and give the players a heads up on larger developments.
If that seems to obvious, then who’s to say that the job they’re planning won’t have it’s own seeds littered about it. With a well planned plot, and a setting you know inside and out, there are many ways to let the players know where they could go next. After all, it’s fun to play in a sandbox, but if you see a sign that promises some great toys to make the playing even more fun, you’d take a look at where it was pointing, wouldn’t you?