Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

The Illusion of Freewill

Copyright (c) 1993 Stephen R. Balzac
Society for Interactive Literature
Originally printed in Metagame, the Journal of the SIL

You've spent the weekend deep into character, working hard to accomplish the goals for your faction. As the end of the game draws nigh, you begin to relax with the sure knowledge that there's no way you could possibly fail: you and your allies have done everything necessary to ensure victory. Then, at the very last second, the GMs announce a slight change in the way things work; suddenly, all your hard work is for naught, your faction ends up exposed for the villainous scum that you are, and everyone else lives happily ever after. You, of course, die horribly.

A slightly exaggerated situation perhaps, but one that has occurred in some fashion more than once. It's called choreography, or, to put it another way, the GMs are determined to see to it that one side "wins" the game, and that there is going to be a happy ending, no matter what. Of course, not all games are choreographed, which can lead to the following scenario:

The high-tech item you've been hunting for started out the game in the hands of the people who most needed it (well, after you, perhaps) and those players are lying low; most of the rest of the characters are hiding because a couple of people with overly high combat factors managed to pick up a pile of weapons at the beginning of the game and are terrorizing everyone. The GMs are just sitting there saying, "Hey, we just resolve rules disputes; it's up to the players to deal with player problems." Sadly, there seems to be nothing available in the game to allow you do this...

Unfortunately, this situation is not only unexaggerated, it has actually been toned down from the reality. It represents the exact opposite situation from choreography: once the game starts, the GMs refuse to take any action whatsoever. Whether or not the game is balanced, whether or not something unreasonable has occurred, whether or not someone critical has disappeared from the game, whether or not only a handful of people are actually having fun, the GMs remain uninvolved. In short, the GMs have turned the game loose and they fully intend to do nothing but arbitrate rules and run complex game mechanics. There's a name for this too: it's called chaos, however, for the sake of argument, it will be referred to as the "Hands off" approach to GMing.

A third scenario, which does not appear choreographed, but where the GMs are very much involved, might look somewhat like the following:

You've been playing at a fairly relaxed pace, gaming for a while, going to the local con for a while. Along the way, you've managed to pick up a few titles and some interesting items, things you may do something with if you aren't otherwise occupied. After all, it's only a game. Much to your surprise, suddenly half the game is hunting you! This isn't what you'd asked for when you signed up. You were never planning to put much time into the game, and you told that to the GMs up front. So why are you now so important?

The answer is that this game is open-ended: this is a game where even a minor character can become important, perhaps without evening realizing it. In the open-ended game, the outcome is completely undetermined; anyone can change the way events turn out, at any point until the very end. In a choreographed game, on the other hand, the fix is in, and the game will end a certain way no matter how hard the GMs have to work to guarantee that will happen. In a hands-off game, if the outcome becomes set at 9am on Saturday, the GMs will take no action to alter that, even if it means that most of the game does nothing for the rest of the weekend. Each of these styles of game have their attractions and their drawbacks; each can be fun in its own way.

In a choreographed game, the players can relax in the safe and sure knowledge that the end is basically fixed. They are just providing the action and the dialogue, but the outcome is never in doubt. The game is played for the fun of getting to the end of the story. This means that you can just relax into your character, and really work on the roleplaying. While bad things may happen to individuals, factions and the fate of the world are pretty secure. If you don't quite accomplish your goals, that's fine, since that's not really the point; the point is the acting you can do along the way. If you're the villains (e.g. the people doomed to fail), you don't have to worry about doing the right thing, only about being dramatic. You know the GMs won't let you succeed, so you may as well ham it up as much as possible, and have a good time doing it. This is a roleplaying game, after all.

If you just want to play a minor character, you can be pretty certain that if you start out fairly minor, you'll always be fairly minor. You don't have to worry that if you decide to do something else, you'll have an irate GM asking you to play your character because the rest of the players need you for something. From the GMs' perspective, life's a lot easier, since tough rulings can be made in such a way as to continue the game along its predetermined course. The climax, of course, comes nicely on schedule, because the GMs don't let the players get to the climax until the schedule says so.

The GMs, of course, do have to make sure that the game goes according to plan. Some will do this better than others; the best often don't let the players ever realize that the action was all predetermined. Unfortunately, sometimes this laudable goal is impossible because the designated losers have done just a little too well... still, a well-done choreographed game can be lots of fun for the players and GMs alike.

On the flip side, there are certain disadvantages to playing in a choreographed game. One obvious point is that a lot of people don't enjoy being the designated losers, even when they're warned of it ahead of time. When they're not warned ahead of time, and discover at the end of the game that all their hard work has been negated by the Fist of the GMs, they might even be a little disgruntled. Even the winners often feel cheated when they discover that all their hard work was largely irrelevant: their faction would have succeeded even if they hadn't stayed up all night solving the puzzles. Some feeling of accomplishment, to realize that everything you worked for would have been handed to you on a silver platter. Finally, that minor character who wants to get more involved may find him or herself locked into an unimportant role no matter what actions are taken.

In a hands-off game, there is a great deal of freedom for the characters. In fact, there may be too much freedom. If the game is perfectly balanced and the plots work out exactly as the GMs imagined they would, the game could be great fun. It's essentially the ideal open-ended game, where all the plots are fun, everyone can influence the outcome, and nothing is decided until the very last second. Unfortunately, our old friend Murphy has a special fondness for live roleplaying games, as almost any GM will attest, and things rarely work out as planned. Thus, if one player or group of players is a little too powerful, they can dominate the game early and shut everyone else out. And since no one can predict with perfect accuracy just how well a given player will do with a given part, this happens far more easily than if the characters had behaved exactly as the GMs had imagined they would. The game then plays out much like a choreographed game: only a few people can do anything, they know what they want to do, and they do it.

In an open-ended game, on the other hand, all your hard work really means something. If you don't do it, someone else will, and they'll claim the prize. In an open-ended game, even a minor character can suddenly achieve major importance. For some, this is a big plus of open-ended games; for others, it is a minus. Not everyone wants to become important, and for some, having greatness thrust upon them is exactly what they do not want to have happen. While roleplaying is still an important part of the game, the roleplaying is inextricably bound up with the accomplishing of character goals; your character is not just a physicist, but a physicist who has things to get done. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that what makes a character are the things that he does, how he does them, and why he does them, as much as the things that he is: someone is not roleplaying a master thief just because he steals from everyone in sight; that's a kleptomaniac. From the GMs' perspective, in an open-ended game, every character must have goals that are appropriate to the character, rather than just arbitrary make-work to keep the player busy.

By definition, the end of the game is not fixed. Any of the multiple factions could conceivably succeed in their goals, and the GMs need to be prepared for any, all, or none of them to succeed. Here, the actions of each character suddenly taken on a great deal more importance. Suddenly, the decisions of a single person can alter the outcome of the game, possibly spinning the action off on a tangent the GMs never imagined. They must be ready to deal with this. The GMs cannot simply ignore the action; instead, they must rule in such a way as to keep the possibility space as wide as is practical, while at the same time being reasonable and fair to the players involved. Given a choice between a set of equally fair rulings, the GMs should try to choose the one which will keep the outcome as open-ended as possible.

The disadvantages of the open-ended game are, in many ways, the same as its advantages. The fact is any person can change the outcome, so if a critical character disappears (perhaps because he didn't realize that he had become critical), whole groups of players could be screwed over. And should the players end up on a wild goose chase, the GMs have the problems of keeping them from getting so lost that they're no longer enjoying the game. The potential for player frustration is also very high: if a group has worked all night to solve its problems, a last-minute double-cross has a much greater emotional impact for all concerned. Not accomplishing goals, for many people, has much more impact when you believe that you could have succeeded if you had only worked just a little harder. Finally, that poor person who had greatness thrust upon him might be very angry. He didn't realize those items he had collected, or those apparently pointless titles he had obtained, really mattered to the game. He didn't want to have the game take up all his time, and now he's been screwed over.

That's where the GMs come in, and their involvement is what distinguishes an open-ended game from a hands-off game. Every game has a certain amount of GM control over the action. In the simplest sense, this might be nothing more than the plot: the design of the game will force the action along a certain path; if the game is a spy-thriller, the action will revolve around spy-type things. Players will take those actions and have those goals which fit the genre of the game. They are not truly free to go off and do anything; they are only free to do anything within a certain narrowly restricted range.

Should the players end up totally lost or confused, it is the job of the GMs to bring them back on track. After all, the point of the game is still to have fun. This is much more complex in a open-ended game than a choreographed one since the GMs don't have a simple touchstone to guide their rulings. On the one hand, the GMs should not leave the players to be bored, frustrated, lost, and generally miserable; then the GMs are not doing their jobs keeping the game balanced; what they are doing is allowing their game to become a hands-off game. On the other hand, the GMs should not give the players all the answers; that's not fair to everyone else. The GMs must do something, and that imposes some control over the action; however this control, perhaps paradoxically, should be oriented toward maximizing the ability of the players to influence the outcome. A total lack of control is as bad as total control: in most purely hands-off circumstances, only a handful of players will be able to determine the outcome of the game.

Consciously or unconsciously, every GM will have some vision of where the game is headed. Preferably, they all have approximately the same vision. In fact, this is almost a necessity for consistent rulings. If every GM has a different vision, or no vision at all, an open-ended game will effectively become a hands-off game: the GMs will cancel each other out. In a choreographed game, the GMs never need to revise their opinions; in an open-ended game, they may have to revise their vision several times as the game progresses; in a hands-off game, either they don't have a vision, or they have so many visions that they become a part of the problem instead of providing a solution. Communication between the different GMs is vital.

So is there really such a thing as an open-ended game? The answer is yes. Paradoxically, a game is open-ended only when there is just enough control for the players to be free to choose their actions. Too much control, and the game becomes an improvisational drama, with the outcome fixed in stone; too little control and the game dissolves into chaos, every player going his own way and the plot getting lost in the confusion.

As for what kind of game is most fun, hands-off, open-ended or choreographed, that really depends on what you like. They all have their places, and their adherents. Ultimately, the one that's most fun is the one you enjoy most.

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