Never According to Plan

The players in a tabletop roleplaying game never do what you expect them to.

Case in point: I’ve just started up a campaign of Promethean. It opens with the player characters being drawn to a mysterious, sprawling house, where they discover an otherworldly being called a qashmal who dispenses a cryptic riddle.

This is the second time I’ve run the beginning of this campaign with different players each time. The first group did what I expected: they searched the building top to bottom for clues, then proceeded to follow up on the riddle. This latest group, however, decided against that.

They listened, then asked the qashmal for the location of a person mentioned in the riddle and left to investigate him. Total amount of the mansion explored: 6%. Now, this isn’t a mistake on their part; it’s a valid approach to take, and this order of operations has certain advantages. But it’s not what I expected. I had the mansion fully prepared; now I’ll have to prepare the church they’re headed toward at a sufficient level of detail.

This is a hazard in tabletop RPGs especially, but it also turns up in more open, “sandbox”-style digital games. The designer often has a vision in her head that describes the sequence of gameplay. However, due to the openness and interactivity of the game, the players can go around that. Forcing the players to do things in the “right” order for convenience’s sake is a bad thing. In RPG parlance, it’s called “railroading.”

A good designer should step back and realize that players can take whatever approach they want in whatever order they want. If doing so will break the game, then the game should be redesigned. If it is absolutely necessary for things to occur in a certain order, then the game world should be shaped so that it is natural and necessary for the players to follow that order, instead of throwing up artificial barriers.

Players never do what you expect them to. That’s what’s so cool about the medium.

8 thoughts on “Never According to Plan

  1. This is the greatest joy of playing/running pen & paper RPGs, and something digital games can never truly achieve. My most important rule as a game master is this: I run the world, not the story. My players are fully aware that I will let them try anything, as long as it makes sense. And boy, this has been an amazing experience – they regularly take the story in directions I could never have anticipated.

    1. something digital games can never truly achieve.

      Never say never. Let’s just say that it would take a rather complex simulation and possibly a sentient AI. :)

      1. You could also use an ever-expanding expert system, like a wiki knowledge base! Although yeah, sentient AI is clearly the superior option. All hail Helios!

  2. I think the best way to prep for any tabletop session is to think of a handful of completely outlandish outcomes, because that’s probably what the players will end up doing ;) I think there’s some corollary to Murphy’s Law that players always do the thing you least expected.

    But it can be one of the most satisfying moments, on both sides of the table. Plus, I often find that even if the players sidestep some big chunk of content I prepped, I can usually find a way to repurpose it before long, maybe with the window dressing tweaked.

    And if “Solve et Coagula” is the title of the Promethean campaign, that’s très awesome.

  3. In the World Of Darkness book concerning hauntings and apparitions, they have an interesting idea on how to do complex buildings.

    The mansion that they describe is x number of rooms, and a room doesn’t settle on what it is until the players enter the room.

    Assuming that I remembered everything correctly.

  4. There is a silver lining when it comes to making open-ended content for digital games that doesn’t exist for tabletop games, too.

    When you’re making a digital game you have the reassurance that the player will be able to replay the game at any time and see any content that they missed the first time through. This means never have to really worry about wasting time creating some part of the game that the player will never see, the way you might when making a tabletop game.

    On top of that, when you make a digital game world with that kind of open-ended design paradigm, you encourage the player, if they enjoyed the game, to play through the game a few more times than they otherwise would have, while still giving them the option to finish the game without forcing them to sit through every scrap of content you made.

    Loving your blog, by the way. It’s inspiring me to make one of my own :)

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