Saturday, April 16, 2016

Thoughts on stories in open worlds (+ Morrowind: done)

Not that long ago, I talked about that RPG Bucket List of mine. Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was on that list and I finished the main quest last week (yay!). But that's barely worth a post, I thought, so I'm going to talk a bit about open world concepts and how much story they allow. So: what happens when the toys in your sandbox have reached their usability?

The stories we tell ...

Here we are. Morrowind, main quest, way to powerful character due to excessive exploring ... my verdict: the ride was great, the end turned out to be entertaining but underwhelming nonetheless and I was left with nothing worth doing afterwards, open world or not. At least it felt that way and it was the end of the campaign for me.

Morrowind is beautiful ... [source]
There is, of course, an obvious connection to good old analogue role playing, because there seems to be an upper limit for the durability of a campaign and it is connected to the stories we tell. This is generally true and goes for open world as much as it does for more story-focused campaigns.

The problem is older than the hobby, actually, as storytellers of all sort usually get to a point where they need to ask themselves: should I go on  and if so, how should I do it. Especially with the public need for "sequels", which is a relatively old phenomenon (the bible, if you will, or medieval romances, for example), but new in it's massive scale nowadays. Dozens of media to consume, thousands and thousands of stories ... You know what I mean.

With this long history of writing sequels, it seems only logical that we have some ideas by now how to do it right. And there is evidence that there are people out there able to achieve seemingly endless streams of sequels with no end in sight. But it fails nearly as often.

The stories we know ...

Let's leave the classic story arc, like in the Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy or the Game of Thrones series (just popular examples) use it, aside for now. They obviously work within limits and usually end in a way that would allow for spin-offs, but not necessarily for sequels. I think Star Wars is a very good example here, negative with the questionable attempt to expand the story by going backwards (chronologically speaking) and positive with several successful spin-offs (books, tv shows, comics and the new trilogy).

Anyway, let's leave it aside. Much more interesting are long ongoing stories within a more open context - like we have them (mostly) in role playing games - and our perception of them. Because there is something like an entry point, isn't there? Our understanding of stories develops individually over time and the more we have seen or read or heard, the more selective we get with the stories we find interesting. Or the more we tend to expect from a story.

I had a discussion with a good friend once about the movie Avatar. He found the story boring beyond believe while I had felt quite entertained and didn't mind that much about the story. The cause behind those opposite reactions had been the same: a simple story-structure. While I found other aspects of the movie interesting enough to get some entertainment out of it (that movie looked fabulous!), my friend got bored because of the simplicity and lost interest fast.

So many great ideas in Avatar! [source]
But there are those who experienced that relatively simple story as something new. They understood something they didn't before seeing the movie and took it with them. Different points of entry, different expectations. And if you add those loving the movie for it's message, you have the full spectrum of reviews about Avatar. Again, it's about where we are with that personal level of experience we have with stories and how far back that entry point is, that shapes how we perceive or choose stories in general.

The stories we get ...

I am meandering, but that's sort of the point. Sort of. By now we have established the need to expand on a story (or world) and different levels of experience with stories in general. We also have a constant in campaigns that will have an influence on the sort of stories we can tell: the characters. Knowing those three basic conditions, we get an idea what kind of stories we need to tell and tv shows are good examples how to do it (or not).

The first game I read that actually went and told me how to structure a story, was Vampire: the Masquerade (first German edition, which had been based on the original second edition) and it left an immense impression on me. I believe they'd been the first to make the whole idea popular to sensitize a DM about the stories he tells (they sure hadn't been the first to do it, though). In essence the storytelling approach taught me to understand how stories work and how I could use it in a campaign.

And yet, it wasn't that easy. This is where we return to the question how we learn about stories. The problem is (if we are as bold as calling it a "problem"), we mainly learn it from a consumer's point of view, not from a producer's and it most certainly reaches different areas in our brain (looking at something for entertainment or looking at something to find an understanding). Although both could be done and are useful in and of themselves.

As a matter of fact, seeing something for entertainment gives you ideas about what you like, reflecting about it gives you ideas about what you could use and analyzing it helps you realizing the structure behind the thing, which leads, in the end, to reproducing it with ease. No time wasted whatsoever.
Always explore different worlds and stories! [source and a great gallery here]

What we get is how we form our knowledge and understanding of stories. And negative experiences are as useful as positive ones. Twin Peaks is one of my favorite examples in that regard. The studio had forced Lynch to solve the murder mystery that hold the story together, early in the second season and effectively killed the show. People lost interest. End of story.

Or was it? It's only because of the massive cult following the show had managed to gather over the years, that they are actually making a reboot right now, with the original cast and all that. It's not really a spin-off or a sequel, in this case, as the original show never got finished in a satisfying manner and I believe it's a special case where we could talk about calling it a continuation of sorts (or seeking closure ... it's going to be interesting).

Every story like that can give us something. Morrowind and Twin Peaks are very similar in that regard: interesting worlds/characters/adventures or not, once the main plot got solved, there is a good chance that people will lose interest in a story. So it might be good to avoid such a thing.

The stories we need ...

I think we are done for now collecting the pieces and ready to talk results. The stories we need in role playing games to keep us engaged, should never have a too satisfying result, unless you want your campaign to end. What does that mean? It means the guy never gets the girl until the very last episode. Might come close, might happen and fail immediately, but never (ever!) before the end ...

... unless you want that change in pace. Then it's totally legit. That's the old schtick with playing D&D in more or less three stages: adventuring, domain game and epic level game. Every stage changes the perspective significantly and seeing the range in power levels in a game like D&D, it might really be the right thing to do. Of how many games have you heard by now that only played the first few levels and stopped because they couldn't (or didn't want to) make that next step.

Story-oriented games have a huge advantage here to open world concepts in that it is possible to plan a campaign more or less completely, which, on the other hand, brings the disadvantage of inflexibility (to a degree, of course, but if you play, say, the Temple of Elemental Evil, then that's what's going to happen ...).

Open world concepts, well, they offer opportunities and enough moving parts to keep it interesting and let the stories evolve from that. There is the disadvantage that the players take too much on and get disoriented, but the main advantage is the freedom to chose your own path.

Between those two extremes, any form of mixture is possible, of course. But all those variants hold the same basic truths. Here's my advice:

  • Start simple (at best with something the complete group can agree upon) and build on your own story structure.
  • Don't assume any level of experience with stories beyond consuming them or to any amount.
  • Allow closure, but make it challenging to make the achievement feel meaningful.
  • Always end a story with a "but" and never without having some sort of foreshadowing for it.
  • Additionally the end of a story can have consequences in the future, but give it time to mature or the players won't feel the end of a story as an achievement.
  • Allow and plan for loose ends, parallel stories and opportunities. It'll allow a world to come alive. If the game reaches a dead end, you did something wrong.
  • Read stories, read about stories, see them, listen to them, write them, if you can. Find out how others perceive them. Make it a constant routine of consuming, reflecting and using. At some point patterns will emerge and you'll start seeing where to put that perfect cliffhanger or twist or change of pace.

The stories open worlds tell ...

... are all about the beauty of randomness. I think my first light bulb moment about open world concepts and sandboxing was about how random encounters don't mean that the encounter pops up in front of the group. It might be in the distance or in the past leaving traces or in the future, bringing rumors or some other sort of resonance with it's surroundings. It means a huge narrative flexibility for the DM.

Monster Reaction rolls had brought the second realization by doing the exact opposite. It forces randomness against my own preconceptions of how an encounter had to react by simply allowing (within limits) the complete scope of reactions, from positive to hostile, instead of me as the DM deciding it. Having to go with the flow here brings a certain freedom to that pressure and brings a felt realism to the game I can only appreciate.

It was after those realizations that I started exploring how to randomize everything I do as a DM in the game and simple rolls as how the weather was and changed over the course of a session or who is encountered and why, on the backdrop of a hugely randomized and evolving setting (where I can sneak in some of my own random ideas), led to some very satisfying gaming moments. Ann my players seem to dig it, too.*

Open Worlds, wild and untamed. [source]
And Morrowind? That game illustrates very well how a character/player as the focal point in an open world game automatically forms a narrative by interacting with that world and how stories emerge from that. Because that's the thing (and my final point here): players instinctively produce a narrative by interpreting their characters interactions among each other, actively seek closure (force it, even) and that will produce stories even in a completely random environment. It's a DMs tact and experience in handling those stories and expectations that can make a game great for all involved.

The stories you tell ...

And that's my piece. I think it's the first time that I try a complete explanation how I handle things as a DM and why. I know it's not the only way and some of the alternatives are in the post, too. But there are always different interpretations and procedures possible and I'd really like to hear about your opinions and experiences here.

So what are the stories you tell and why? Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

* Which is to some extent limited by the necessity that it's important to have players who actually want you as a DM and give you the freedom to play it that way ...


  1. Morrowind... You can play about 4 chords of the opening song and I get chills, that game was just amazing.

    I tell the stories that the players create and how the world reacts. I tell the stories of a much larger world and let the players write in what they're going to do. I learned that an open world needs obvious hooks, but those hooks dangle whether the players do something or not.. and then the world reacts to their interest or non-interest.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Michael! Yeah, that music get me every time, too :) Interesting that you have things going in your world that might or might not concern the players. A bit like the fronts in Dungeon World? I try to keep track of the things the players know (because it came up)and concentrate on what they bring to the table ... Yeah, dangling hooks is another great and important aspect in open world games! Low hanging fruits and all that.

  2. If you'd like to take a look at some of the things I'm doing:

    The idea in my world is that if players (or I) want to wargame at a scale of thousands of soldiers, we can. Or if they want to go to 1-to-1 D&D scale and RPG, they can. That the world has events happening and I am tracking them. That the tabletop group may be focused on events in the Northeast, but the online group is focused on events in the Southwest. And that my solo wargame to the southeast, news will trickle back to them (horseback news takes awhile...) but that significant things have happened.

    1. I know who you are, of course :) And I read your blog every now and then. But seeing the posts you wrote about your Dark Ages campaign, I think I have to take a closer look. There's some good stuff! (and I had exactly that castle as a kid ...)

      I'm doing something similar, having two groups exploring the same sandbox and it has been quite demanding, but also very satisfying in a way. Wrote a post about it, too. If you haven't read that one, it's here:


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