Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mustard or Ketchup with that Dungeon?

Choice is a funny thing in games.  We expect our choices to be meaningful, but the types and amount of choices the players should expect is contextual.  If you're signing up to play in your referee's adventure path game, you already know the campaign is going to take you from scene A to scene B to scene C as you follow the story. Plotted horror scenarios are similar.   But you're expecting that as you encounter the various scenes, there will be a range of potential outcomes and consequences based on how well everyone is playing.  Choosing to abandon the story to go do something random, like joining the traveling circus (the first random thing that came to mind), is probably not an option.  It's against the ground rules.

I like dungeons and hex crawls because they provide a degree of player freedom within a limited geographic scope.  Dungeons in particular are good at reducing options to various binary choices - go forward or go back, turn left or turn right.

One thing I'm ruminating about - what's a good number of plot hooks to float to the players at any given time in a sandbox style game?  Imagine you're kicking off a new fantasy game and you want to build a simple hex crawl with a series of lairs and adventure sites scattered about.  You need at least one adventure site ready to go for that first game.  Do you usually prepare a couple of sites in advance and float some options?

A sandbox game with a bunch of plot hooks is easier to keep going once the game is rolling.  Just ask the players at the end of each session what they want to do next week.  Your detailed preparation is limited by adopting a 'just in time' approach between games.  But kicking the game off and getting started is another matter.

When preparing some of the megadungeons I've ran in the past, I never worried about "overdeveloping" the dungeon or building in too many choices - and risking developing areas the players never choose to visit.  Now that I'm thinking through how 5E campaign development might look, I find myself worried about doing too much up front.  It's a weird mental block I need to get past.  (Maybe I've psyched myself out due to fast advancement!  Blargh.)

To answer my own question, though - I usually like to have two or three distinct plot hooks before the players.  If you put too many out there, you risk a bit of "analysis paralysis"; a beer and pretzels group of gamers can quickly decide between a couple of options.  But here's one thing I stand by - the choices do need to be distinct.  None of this 'all plot looks lead to the same thing' type of tomfoolery.   "You're getting a hot dog no matter what you ask for, but whether you want sauerkraut, mustard, or ketchup is up to you" - that works with my kids.  In an RPG, all roads shouldn't actually lead to Rome.