Tuesday, February 2, 2016

When Does Your Game "Open Up?"

As I’ve tried to shake off the last of this positional vertigo, I’ve played a lot of Final Fantasy XII. It’s my favorite FF game, and probably my top JRPG now. That's a topic for another post. As I played I noticed how FF XII opened up. That’s made me consider how I “open up” rpgs at the table and why.

What do I mean by open up? I mean the point at which the rpg gives you more freedom of choice (or a notable illusion of that freedom). You’ve been kept in line, moving from piece to piece, making your way through maps and quests. Suddenly you have room to move, the ability to backtrack, and choices of direction & goals.

Japanese RPGs often hold that moment back for a long, long time. The classic “airship” change happens when you get a transport that opens up new possibilities. Ships, riding beasts, teleport points, tanks which can cross deserts, tech or tools to enter new places, etc. Usually until that point you’ve followed a highly determined story. Each completed quest suggests the next or creates a hunt for the right trigger. Final Fantasy 8, Wild Arms, Atelier Iris, Valkyrie Profile 2, White Knight Chronicles, Blue Dragon, Skies of Arcadia, Grandia II; all these follow this path. Some games, ChronoCross and Valyrie Profile: Lenneth offer choice, but they’re minor and lock the player into one of a few paths.

Some games never let you off the rails. Final Fantasy XIII’s notorious for this. Your characters move in a straight line, literally and figuratively. Plot points come in a clear sequence. Areas and locations have no spurs, junctions, or real choice. You only go backwards to solve a puzzle. For most of the game you can't even set your party composition. You play who the developers say to from your cast of six. Then, about 2/3rds of the way through the game, FF XIII opens up. Sort of. You reach another world, open and wide ranging, with tons of zones and many directions to travel in. But that world’s empty, populated by monsters, a few set pieces, and a great mass of hunt missions. The area may have opened up but the game doesn’t.

So why do video games do this? To...
  • Offer Tutorial: Demonstrating controls, system mechanics, interface, combat difficulty.
  • Introduce Setting: If not the world, then at least the starting place. Often with an info dump of history.
  • Connect to Character: Beyond the introduction of the character(s), there’s the attempt to establish sympathy and connection with them. Backstory, sudden hardship, 'save the cat'.
  • Establish Plot: Set the starting points of the hero’s journey and establish the overall threat.
  • Demonstrate Tone: The initial area either shows the tone of the game or the opposite of it. In the latter case, that initial area will be devastated.
  • Advance from Zero: Give players a safe and controlled area to try out their abilities. Offer them a chance to build up with modest danger.
  • Avoid Overwhelming: You could read it as condescension. Players can’t handle all of the ideas and elements so they have to be slowly doled out.
  • Set Stakes: Often the opening creates important ties and then “fridges” or threatens them. Creation of connections to destroy.
  • Show Off: The game has great stuff to show you and you’re going to see it.
  • Adhere to Convention: Games work this way so we have to follow that pattern. This may be unintentional.

JRPG openings vary in key areas; for example, Duration. How long is the party held in this constrained environment? I like Final Fantasy XII in part because it opens up early, at least in comparison to other JRPGs (look at FF X and XIII). Hand Holding’s another issue. How long does game baby you with easy combats or with explanations of systems? Ni No Kuni’s terrible about this. Even when you reach the last portion of the game, it still pops out alerts for things you’ve handled thousands of times. Some games remain closed but allow a measure of Self-Control. For example in the Suikoden games you can usually pick most of your party as you head down your set path. In Disgaea you can spend hours and hours diving down into the Item World rather than doing the actual game. That can make for a widely different experience. In other games you can create hugely different builds which change the challenge.

Again I’m talking about JRPGs. The "opening up" often comes much earlier in RPG designs from other countries. Bethesda’s the poster-child for this. Morrowind’s crazy. You get dropped off a boat with a couple of instructions and little else. I actually find it overwhelming. I like more direction and a support for the early stage. Yes, it’s funny and striking to wander immediately into something that kills you dead. There’s that sense of old-school challenge. But it wears me down, because I’m a lazy video game player. So I’ve never gotten out of the Dustmen’s HQ in Planescape Torment or past the first village in any Elder Scrolls.

I’m wondering where my campaigns (and in turn other GM’s campaigns) “open up.” I have different wants from tabletop and video games. The funnel I’d accept from a Tales of... game would make me insane in a Rolemaster campaign.
  • Middle Earth: Tight at the start. I put the party in the middle of a mission with a well-defined goal. I want to acclimate them to the setting and put the mechanics through their paces. I haven’t run in Middle Earth before, so I want to see how the canon impacts play. I expect to keep things on rails for a few sessions. By then I’ll have most of my pieces on the table and shown the big challenge/threat. Then they can go where they want and choose their approach. (So, what maybe four-five sessions before it opens up?).
  • Frost, Stone, and Darkness: Assigned missions and started them on the road to their destination. Since several were new players, I set up first session fight to get read the party. After that I put the various threats (external, internal) and mysteries on the table. They could pick what to go after, how to react, who to investigate. Their choices, some surprising, have shifted the game. (Felt to me like I opened things up after session one.)
  • Ocean City Interface: We discussed the shape of the campaign clearly beforehand. They began with the offer of a mission. I’d established they’d take it (so false choice). However they had free reign in how to handle things when they got there. They established the obstacles and chose how and in what order to handle them. The game then popped back to the real world. I set some details about their situation and let them run. (Again, felt to me like the game opened up after session one.)
  • Guards of Abashan: Collaborative build for the city setting. Opened with several different crimes they could deal with. Continued that pattern throughout. (Opened up right from the start).
  • Legend of the Five Rings: Collaborative clan building. Spent some time establishing NPCs in first session and then their daimyo charged them with several tasks to deal with during the upcoming season. They could choose order & method or even delegate those tasks to others. (Opened up early).
  • Changeling the Lost: I’ve run two of these campaign. In the first they arrived out of the Hedge and I kept them constrained and figuring out their place in the world for four-five sessions. Then it opened up as they encountered the greater world of Changelings. In the second they again arrived straight out of the Hedge. I set the opening and then told them they needed to offer a service to each of the Courts to gain access. They could choose any, but the cards were stacked they’d help one (Winter) over the others. (Varied between, some holding back for a few sessions).
  • Last Fleet: Collaborative world building using Microscope. We then talked about the campaign structure. I opened with a pretty scripted prologue- though their choices and actions affected which groups and ships survived. They then traveled through the Void for about eight sessions. That was closed- moving between interactions on the ships and “away-team” missions. Then they found their way to a new realm and the game opened up- allowing them to choose where to go and who to ally with. (Game opened up after many sessions 9-10).

Of course, I haven’t run some kinds of games. For example, I think by definition a Hex-Crawl opens up right from the start. On the other hand, a Dungeon Crawl, while it might have choices of approach, funnels the characters (sometimes literally). I also haven’t run a player-driven campaign like Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, or Urban Shadows. It seems these open up from the start, giving choice and autonomy when done right. Other PbtA games have a tighter frame and don't open up the same way (Night Witches, Monster of the Week). I’m also not thinking about things like campaign modules or adventures paths. Some open up or work hard to create the illusion of opening up. Others dispense with that.

Here’s my food for thought
  • When do your games “open up”?
  • How much set up and establishment does a game need? What do you gain?
  • Are some reasons for keeping things locked down more valid than others?
  • What makes you feel like the campaign’s given you choice and freedom? ...Character choices, options for solutions, going wherever you want?
  • Is not opening up the same as railroading? Do players read this in different ways?
  • Why would tabletop GMs hold off opening up? Do they have different reasons than a video game?

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