Open Ended Storylines and Player Subplots

The best use of the RPG setting, in my opinion, is in the flexibility of an open ended storyline.  The referee makes a detailed description of the world, its inhabitants, social dynamics, physical features, etc., gives the players the seed of the plot, and then roughly sketches out a number of different paths they might follow to "solve" the adventure, knowing full well that the players will miss most, if not all, of them.  This requires an especially good gamemaster with a quick mind and improvisatory ability, to be able to cope with whatver harebrained scheme the party might throw at him.  It is the most rewarding for the players, as they no longer have the feeling of being railroaded through a sequence of predetermined events, their only contribution being the rolling of dice to see whether or not they kill the enemy in front of them so they can proceed tot he next staged encounter.  The players and the referee are effectively collaborating to create a work of fiction, and the satisfaction of doing so is shared by all involved.

Computers are notoriously horrible at this style of refereeing.  To do so, the programmer must try to conceive of every possible approach to a problem a player might take, and code appropriately, using true-false values in combination with advanced fuzzy logic to deal with all the grey areas.  Even then, it is almost impossible to determine what a player will do, and exactly how the environment should react.  Worse still, a player doing something in an unconventional way logically has an impact on the further development of the story, requiring the computer to rewrite entire sections of the adventure on the fly in the perfect model, in accord with player choices and consequences.  Multiply this with every possible quest in your world, and every player who will approach that quest, and you can understand why it’s more practical to fall back on the "go through the dungeon this way and fight stuff" model.  This model, however, is woefully inadequate for an ideal persistent world in which players feel they actually make a difference.

A compromise may be reached between open-ended stories and a linear plot, however.  Since the determining factor in an open-ended plot is the actions of players, you must therefore (1) support advanced player interaction via trade, socio-political systems, and PvP, and (2) manage the logical consequences of such interactions on a case-by-case basis.  The great advantage for the content team in this case is the fact that the actions of players are determining the various subplots, not development manhours.  The disadvantage is that someone should be scrutinizing these subplots occasionally to ensure that they don’t fly too far outside of realistic world dynamic concerns, and most of all, these will be happening on a per-server basis in a mirrored world environment (like any of the big three).

This last concern has certain implications for the concurrent linear plot, i.e. the "official" story of your game world implemented by the development team.  Unless you want to effective run as many official plots and events as you have servers, increasing your content overhead by the same amount, your overall official stories cannot be significantly impacted by the player-driven subplots.  This means that clear restrictions have to be placed on the players who wish to advance their own plots in the form of restricted building zones, maximum amount of political power wielded, etc.  If Joe the Monarch builds a shell keep and cultivates 40 acres of land somewhere in the wilderness, that land is now no longer usable as a staging point for a massive invasion.  However, if the keep is right on the border, and the invasion happens to start nearby, they will inevitably cause problems for Joe the Monarch and his holdings.  In this way, player subplots and official storylines can coincide on a per-server scale, drawing the players into the official storyline, giving them new opportunities to participate and actually make a difference within the context of their version of the game world.

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