There’s a fantastic article from earlier this year about the ‘shape’ of choice-based games. It was based on the Choose Your Own Adventure books many of us grew up with, though the principles apply to any choice-based games with different potential paths to choose from.
So, naturally, it applies to most tabletop games as well, and it has some surprising new options for story flow that can otherwise be difficult to plan out for a game.
Understanding the shape of your game (or the shape you prefer to run, or the shape your players prefer to play in) can quickly give any GM an easy roadmap of where to plant the elements of their game so that the players will have the content they want waiting for them at each decision point along the way.
A lot of games – especially one-shots and convention games – follow the standard Gauntlet pattern: a linear arc with a sprinkling of side events near the main pipeline. Don’t completely discard this model – it works well in a one-shot and for players trying out a new setting and system who may want the main storyline to more or less take care of itself.
But Gauntlet games are also where we get the notion of railroading from, which is often too rigid and simple for an ongoing campaign.
Many campaigns already fall into the Branch & Bottleneck pattern (or “flying dungeon”), with player choices resulting in largely superficial changes to the story delivering them to predestined nodes (encounters, clues, etc.) along a fixed path. It’s essentially a Gauntlet with the illusion of meaningful choice to create a sense that the world is more complete, complex and responsive than the GM really has time to make it.
Some campaigns, especially those following module sets, instead follow the Quest pattern – with clustered ‘hubs’ of local, interconnected activity along an otherwise linear path. Specific choices can have a big impact locally, but the overall story is largely unaffected by them.
Those are all formats you’re likely familiar with and have likely played in or run in, whether you realized it or not. For a different feel to your campaign, consider testing out the Open Map, Loop and Grow or Sorting Hat patterns.
Open Map works wonderfully for a ‘sandbox’ feel in a campaign. The main plot largely shows up as a backdrop to individual events, interacting directly with the PCs only at the beginning and the end. In the interim, they get to explore an open world, perhaps building resources or contacts as they go to build up to a final conflict. There’s still a constraint on time to keep things moving, but player choice is truly open – each ‘card’ is essentially a self-contained micro-arc, encounter or event only tangentially related to the larger plot.
The biggest concern with an Open Map is momentum. Leave hooks in several directions at the end of each local event that point to three of the others. Even if the players have done one or two of those events before they reach the event in question, they still have a usable hook to give them direction for where to head next.
An exploration game in Numenera can greatly benefit from the Open Map style to feel unique over classic RPGs. In Eclipse Phase, the PCs may be doing odd jobs to slowly gain rep with the right group until they have the influence they need to trigger the final conflict.
The Loop and Grow model makes time a kind of map for you game. It’s a perfect fit for time travel (the PCs relive the same events, making specific changes and seeing the results on the ensuing loop until they have all the pieces in place to fix the timeline or get the outcome they want), but also for plots that hinge on recurring events (full moons, planetary alignments, seasons, etc.), giving PCs a limited time to do what they need to do before the next window passes, resetting or altering their progress before they go around again.
Loop and Grow games rely on two somewhat paradoxical things: recurring elements and new elements. It’s critical to have set, recurring events or elements that will be familiar from earlier iterations, but to also clearly show that the decisions made on the last go-round have a lasting change on future iterations to avoid players feeling like their actions don’t matter en route to figuring out the right final combination of actions.
If you’ve ever wanted to add a Groundhog Day element to any game (a botched spell, a science experiment creating a time loop, etc.), the Loop and Grow model is the go-to pattern.
The Sorting Hat is really just several Gauntlets stacked up in advance with a key choice near the beginning to give the players some choice in what particular game they want to see that day. Sorting Hats work really well to keep one-shots and con games fresh. You can run the same Gauntlet for the same players in the future, letting them choose a different ‘house’ at the start to see a different path and ending from the same root beginning.
If you have several one-shot ideas in the same setting, it’s often easy to weave them into a Sorting Hat pattern to have an easy go-to kit for conventions or ad-hoc holiday gaming that even the same group can enjoy again and again.
Breaking out of the age-old patterns should lead to a lot of unique gaming all around, and the designs Ashwell outlined should make for easy templates to outline a game with a less rigid, linear style.