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The butterfly effect – the joys and difficulties of an open world setting

C: What are we talking about today, Ange?

A: Well, you’ve finally joined the open world crew.

C: Team Open World! Yeah, we’re currently in three big D&D campaigns. Yours mostly takes place in an open world, in a town called Blackmarsh. Our friend Jacques runs a campaign which takes place in a sort of hub world which one leaves for relatively linear missions.

A: It’s like a hub isle—we’re all trapped on a small island, slowly going mad.

C: Yeah; the main town on the island acts as a HQ where we spend time between missions. That used to be my setup too, more or less. There was a base which the party left to go on semi-linear missions which were generally relatively episodic, though they were also tied into the larger plot. But since the start of 2019, I’ve moved more in your direction of having an open world setting which the party lives in and explores. You guys are now in this sort of off-kilter fantasy town—

A: It’s called Grenton.

C: Yeah, a not-so-fantasy name. If you live in the UK, you’ve probably seen at least one town with almost that exact same name. I think there’s about five within thirty miles of us.

A: I can’t criticise; I nicked Blackmarsh from the etymology of Dublin.

C: That’s a fair point.

A: I’ve never actually been to Dublin. I assume it’s less horrifically filled with evil witches than Blackmarsh.

C: Or, to be fair, good witches. Although, what do I know—I’ve never been to Dublin either.

A: Anyway, in your game we’re now in Grenton, which is pretty open world-y.

C: Yeah. It’s interesting; from a DMing perspective, there’s a lot of really significant differences between an open world campaign and a relatively linear adventure which runs from Point A to Point B. Obviously, even with Point-A-to-Point-B campaigns, there’s still wiggle room in the game.

A: Yeah, things are never rigid. Players always manage to add their own slant to any situation.

C: Right; different choices change things. But having a contained adventure allows you to plan around a lot of circumstances in a totally different way. I wouldn’t describe Grenton as 100% open world—there are still events that get set off by you entering a new neighbourhood or by going into a new shop. But the order in which you do them and the order in which everything comes together—and how you learn things—is very much out of my control as a DM. I don’t get a lot of say in where y’all go and what y’all do next. I just give you the tools and then you pursue them in your own time, in your own way.

A: Which is very exciting, but also quite hard, as a player. I hadn’t appreciated how difficult it was for you guys in my game until we got to Grenton in your game.

C: Yeah.

A: I’m now like, ‘Oh my goodness, I need to stop my world being so open,’ because it’s hard, especially for large parties, when there’s that much freedom. It’s not quite ‘Fear of Missing Out’, but in your game I can be paralysed with this anxiety that we should be somewhere else in town doing something else. It’s tough to navigate all the choice.

C: There’s definitely FOMO-esque elements, yeah.

A: Like, as an example, we just met some really un-fun religious people—

C: Zealots.

A: —who are very much like, ‘We hate all other faiths and everyone in general.’ I want them to stop killing people. But I don’t want to interfere with them before I’ve learnt more about the power structures that exist in Grenton, checked if there’s support we can get from other religious groups, and so on. And I’m not quite sure what the best place to start with that is—should we talk to the local vigilante group? Look for clerics of other faiths? Take a quick break so that Farrar can look up an old flame?

C: Yeah, open worlds come with a ton of options and choices to be made.

A: And I’m suddenly much more afraid of making mistakes.

C: Really?

A: Yes! Because if we do the wrong thing, it could knock everything in the world off-kilter. When you’re on a linear adventure, you’re like, ‘I assume the town’s happy. We left; it’s probably fine.’ Now we get to hang around and see the results of our decisions.

C: That’s true. You want your open world setting to feel like a real world, which means that actions have consequences. But you still want it to feel approachable and easy to navigate—not just literally, but also figuratively for your players—you don’t want it to be linear, but you don’t want to overwhelm them with lots of ultimately superficial choices either. Finding that balance between a comprehensible world and one in which the players have real power is the biggest, but most rewarding, challenge. In my opinion, anyhow.

A: I should also say, while there are definite difficulties and pitfalls with open world narratives, we recently watched Bandersnatch

C: Which is the latest episode of the series Black Mirror.

A: Right. And reviews and articles about it all billed it as being interactive and like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story.

C: Which is obviously 100% our shit because we love interactive storytelling.

A: But when we watched it, I realised that they meant it in terms of the actual trademarked, copyrighted Choose Your Own Adventure (Chooseco) books. I’ve done a few of them and, in general, they’re actually quite linear, especially compared to D&D. They tend to be like, ‘Did you make the right choice? If not, death.’

C: We did keep dying in Bandersnatch.

A: So, on the one hand, complex, interactive open worlds come with a lot of difficulties. But, having suddenly experienced a super not-interactive world where you’re stuck on this linear path and if you make the wrong choices, everything effectively ends, suddenly I was more, ‘Oh, open worlds are tough but they’re way more satisfying.’ I don’t leave D&D being like, ‘What? I said yes to this thing so apparently I had to kill my dad.’

C: Spoilers.

A: Oh, yeah, sorry.

C: Talking about open world versus linear storytelling in D&D…well, coming off of my latest open world session, I gotta say that I’m really keen on open world right now. It was really fun watching my players explore and learn things, making choices and plans. And developing the consequences of those plans—helping them carry them out, challenging them—it was all super rewarding.

A: Working with your players is always fun.

C: I will say, though, that the level of prep that I needed to do to make the environment feel fleshed out and approachable from any angle was way, way, way more intense than a linear story. I needed to have so much more planned out—‘What if they go in this totally different direction?’ Linear storytelling lets you plan everything around one circumstance, one entry point and one stratagem (before allowing for your party and their choices, at least). With open world, I needed to do so much more so that everything in the town could exist and feel palpable all at once.

A: There’s a lot of planning with open worlds.

C: Though I probably don’t need to develop everything to the degree I actually do. But it was useful. I don’t know how that compares to your experience?

A: Well, I think we have very different techniques.

C: Yeah?

A: You have, essentially, leapfrogged me in the open world setting and gone in headfirst, whereas I’m only up to my knees in it, if this were the sea.

C: Famously where frogs live.

A: Because mine is bit more like one of those computer games where the map isn’t fully uncovered until you’ve explored a place.

C: Like Fog of War, sure.

A: Right, mine’s a lot more like that. For example, Petra’s been to a pub in the Horse Mire district of Blackmarsh, and Maddy briefly went there for cake, but you guys haven’t properly explored it, and as a result, it’s still kind of ‘fogged over’ for both of us. I know roughly what’s there, but I haven’t yet fully locked everything in.

C: That’s totally true. Your world is one that you’re developing as we explore it.

A: And some of it I’m holding back until you guys are like, ‘We want to go to the bathhouse,’ and then I decide what the most likely place for a bathhouse is. Whereas you’ve built everything right from the start.

C: Yeah.

A: So mine has required less prep work, but I’m always then more nervous in-game because I have to do a lot more things on the fly.

C: That’s really true. I think a lot of it comes down to how comfortable you are with improv. I do like a good improv but I know I’m not the best at it in a lot of circumstances, which is why I think I kinda, well, ‘over-prep’, unfortunately.

A: True—I do things of the cuff a bit more.

C: There are things that we do similarly, too—we’ve broken both of our cities down into districts to make them a little more comprehensible for our players. And we gave the districts proper noun names, like Horse Mire in your case, which they can learn pretty quickly, to make it easier for them too.

A: Also, both our mayors are probably terrible people.

C: Yeah, Dyrnell Tormayed and Thomas Gorey.

A: You can tell which is which because my name is spell-able.

C: Yeah, Angela’s name is like a human name that a person would have and mine sounds like a fucking Game of Thrones y-and-e vowel name on some sort of powerful psychedelic, which is really also a big difference in our campaigns even though they take place in the same canonical fantasy world.

A: All the people with normal names just move to Blackmarsh.

C: Yeah. It’s witches and people with sensible spellings.

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