GM Advice: Lessons Video Games Can Teach Us.

Lately I’ve been playing two video games: Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Mass Effect: Andromeda. This isn’t a review of either game, as this blog isn’t the place for that. Suffice it to say that I think they are both good games, albeit each with its own flaws. However, there are valuable lessons that can be drawn from both these games—and RPG games in general—and applied to our tabletop campaigns. Please note that mild spoilers about both these games and the original Mass Effect trilogy are interspersed throughout this article.

Choices Matter, but it’s not Always Wrong to Railroad

That subtitle should have come with a warning, huh? There are those of you that had to stop reading this to clean up the drink you just spat at your screen.

“Railroading”, or the practice of forcing the PCs down one particular path rather than giving them a choice, has become a dirty word synonymous with bad DMing. Yet the reality is, all games railroad to some extent.

For all that video games like Mass Effect have choices, none of those choices ultimately change the direction of the game. The player is still inexorably drawn further into the conflict of the Citadel species against the Reapers and their agents. Even an open world like Elder Scrolls: Skyrim still has a main storyline that players will ultimately have to conclude.

“But tabletop RPGs don’t have the same limitations as video games,” you might argue. And that’s both true and untrue. Of course players have a lot more freedom in a tabletop RPG. But they still have a plot that constrains them. If your campaign revolves around defeating an ancient evil, then the PCs have no choice in that matter: unless they die before the end of the campaign, they’re going to have to work towards that goal and ultimately defeat the ancient evil. If the adventure you have planned for a particular session involves the PCs getting lost in a haunted wood, then trees and ghosts are all your players can expect from that session.

The dirty truth is that every plan the DM brings to the table is a railroad if they make any effort at all to keep the party’s actions in line with the plan. And if you don’t intend to do that, there’s no point planning in the first place. I’ve known DMs who insist that games should be about complete player freedom. All that happens in these games is that the PCs trample all over everything the DM plans, and the DM ends up improvising every session. Less prepared is generally less fun, in my experience.

Railroads are at the heart of the game, and the truth is most players even want them. There are plenty of players out there who are more comfortable taking a passive role in the game, and even players who crave freedom still generally want an epic plot for their heroes to struggle through.

Ideally, of course, you try to railroad with some finesse and keep some player agency intact. This is where the “Choices Matter” part of the title comes in. While you can (and have to) railroad in broad strokes, the fine details need to give your players actual choices.

Perhaps the players can choose route A or route B, but either way they’ll ultimately get to C. The key here is that route A and route B should be meaningfully different, and the players should have access to some information that helps them make the choice. If one route takes the party into the hunting grounds of a basilisk, and the other through a village of cannibals, then the choice matters. But unless the players have some way of knowing or guessing what is down each path, the choice isn’t a meaningful one, it’s the equivalent of flipping a coin. Instead, present them with clues.

Imagine that the party are stopping at an inn the night before, and swap stories with some of the locals. One trader tells them:

  • “There are only two roads through the forest.”
  • “People generally don’t risk the Eastern road. It’s shorter, but lots of people go missing. And those as have made it through tell of terrible statues along the road that look like folk frozen in horror.”
  • “The West road is longer, but safer, and there’s a village. The folk there are slightly weird, if you ask me. A little too involved in each other’s business, and a little too curious about everyone passing through. Sort of clannish. Generous types though, always offering to let me stay overnight. But like I said, they’re a bit overbearing and I’m a private person, so I prefer to camp on the road.”

Now the players have enough clues to know that something dangerous lurks on the East road and to put together it might be a creature that can turn people to stone. They also know that there are no obvious dangeros on the West road, but you’ve put it out there that there’s something off about the people the party will encounter there. That might not be enough to put the party off from going in that direction, but it might prompt them to make further enquiries with the locals. They might for instance meet someone whose relative went that way, and never returned.

Of course, the players might decide to go through the forest, but if you don’t want that to be a likely option then you’ve probably already come up with an explanation for why that’s a bad idea.

Where railroading is inappropriate is when it takes away player agency from important story decisions. If the PCs don’t want to make an alliance with an evil warlord, don’t force them to do it. Instead, practice “good” railroading, by coming up with a new way for them to get back on track with the plot. Maybe there’s some other faction to ally with or power the PCs can acquire to make up for the soldiers lost when they refused the warlord’s alliance?

Make Choices Meaningful

The Mass Effect trilogy had a story that roughly played out in the same way no matter what you did, but had specific junctures where your choice would have meaningful impact. The effect of that choice might not be fully understood during the game in which it happened, but resonates throughout the series. For instance, depending who you let die in Mass Effect, either Kaidan or Ashley (the survivor) makes a brief appearance in Mass Effect 2. Both are fully programmed into Mass Effect 3 as potential party members, but only the one who did not die previously is accessible during your playthrough. In Mass Effect: Andromeda there are quite a few similar choices, though it remains to be seen which of those will become significant throughout the series.

What do I mean by “make choices meaningful”, when tabletop gaming is pretty much all choices? The PCs make choices all the time. Most of the time, they’re choices you haven’t even planned for because you never foresaw the direction the PCs would decide to take. You might not be able to do it for every choice, but it’s still worthwhile trying to make some of these choices matter in the long run. What’s important is to identify when the result of a choice has introduced something interesting such as a named NPC, group, or potential plot seed. Such additions don’t have to last beyond the adventure in which they arise. But whenever you add something significant to your world, or the PCs make what feels like a significant choice despite it being unscripted, it’s worth making a note of it. You can refer back to these notes later and use them as seeds for future world building and adventure ideas. The world of your game will feel enriched and more alive if you can incorporate recurring elements.

Let’s say you planned a heist adventure where the party need to break into the mansion of a powerful mage to acquire a powerful McGuffin, but it’s well known that no one has ever successfully broken into his mansion. You expect your PCs to case the building, maybe try to get close to the mage and get invited in, or possibly make some enquiries into the mage’s activities in the present or even in the past, back when the mansion was being built. They might even go looking for thieves who have attempted the task and failed (but survived), assuming that each one might have a hint about at least one of the barriers, if not how to solve it, at least to clue them in to what it is. What you didn’t expect or prepare for was your party deciding to get in with the local thieves guild, because they guess that the leaders of the guild might have their own reasons for wanting to get into the mage’s vault and might be persuaded to offer whatever assistance they can if the PCs are willing to make a trade. You decide that’s a great idea and roll with it, and your campaign takes a short detour as you spend a few sessions on the party taking on jobs to convince the guild leaders of their usefulness.

After your campaign moves on from these events, and possibly from the city in which the party met the guild, you have no more need for them. But it will make your world feel more alive if rather than being a throwaway concept, the thieves guild reappears. Perhaps they turn out to be a branch of a larger guild, and when the party arrives in a new city they are approached by guild agents offering them work? Or maybe the party’s connection to the thieves guild is figured out by a rival organisation, who come after them.

As for choices you prepared for, you should always plan to make them meaningfully impactful or they wouldn’t be much of a choice. In the example above, let’s say that another option was to try to persuade the mage to loan the party the McGuffin, but they didn’t want to risk his saying “no” and decided to steal it. A powerful mage has ways of finding out who they are (scrying for the stolen item, for one), and can either come after the thieves personally or send agents to deal with them. Whereas if they talk to the mage, there might be two outcomes: they fail to persuade him, in which case they need to find another alternative to the McGuffin or attempt to steal it in the face of heightened security; or they do persuade him to their cause, in which case they have the beginnings of a powerful ally, but need to continue to keep his faith.

This example is actually made up of a choice you prepared for and an improvised option combined. To make these decisions resonate in your world, have the potential consequences reflect both choices. For instance, if the PCs steal the item with the help of the thieves guild, the mage might get wind of that and wreak a vengeance on the guild. The PCs might be far away when they hear rumours of the mass slaying of the thieves guild of the city they were recently in. They might even run into a survivor of that massacre. In this situation you might plan ahead, seeding that rumour into a session several weeks before you plan to have the mage come after the thieves themselves.

Big, Open Worlds aren’t Always The Most Fun

The trend in modern video games is to make bigger and bigger worlds. Developers boast of how large the world map is, and how open to free exploration. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. These huge worlds are often characterised by vast stretches with little to do between locations of actual interest, and those points of “interest” often amount to little more than a collectible, tedious fetch quest, or the ever-irritating tower climb to reveal the region. Also in the quest to make games seem bigger, it’s now common practice to offer DLC in the year following the game’s release, although this largely comes across like a cash grab for content which many would argue should have been in the game at release.

Sadly, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s open world, while beautiful to explore, is probably the worst example I’ve ever seen for this. In fact, it’s a completionist’s hell: there are 900 korok to find, 120 shrines (which usually involve a short set of puzzles or a mini-boss fight), plus side quests, most of which are of course the dreaded fetch quest. There’s a metric butt-ton of gathering you’ll need to do if you want to upgrade your gear. And if you complete the story, you can start a new sidequest that asks you to defeat 84 boss monsters all over the world map.

Meanwhile, Mass Effect: Andromeda has multiple open world landscapes each with dozens of points of interest. They’re all barren hellscapes of one type or another: there are two deserts, a snowscape (so, you know, another type of desert), an a moonscape. Unsurprisingly, the most interesting open world you get to explore is the jungle, and it’s also the smallest and the only one that doesn’t require you to drive around in the vehicle (which isn’t as bad as the MAKO from Mass Effect, but honestly isn’t much more fun). And these open worlds feel dead, not just because they are generally deserts but because Bioware have given them no life: great swathes between points of interest are interrupted only by repetitive encounters with enemy forces or the native wildlife. And that wildlife, hoo boy: the same four or five creatures appear on all planets, even though that makes no sense whatsoever. The only reason you have to explore these planets fully is to complete all of the side quests which, you guessed it, are largely tedious fetch quests.

This is straying into review territory now, so I’ll corral my thoughts and get to the point: big open worlds aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. In the tabletop RPG, this means three things.

Firstly, not all games need to be epic journeys across massive worlds to defeat an ultimate evil. Campaigns that are more intimate in scope can be equally if not more satisfying. If a game is exclusively set in and around a single city, it will have joys of its own: including extensive development of local NPCs and greater attachment between the PCs and the NPCs and locations around them, potentially increasing player engagement with the setting.

Secondly, if your world is a big one, allowing your PCs to venture anywhere at a whim when you haven’t planned for it can lead to a dull session. This goes back to my first point about railroading. And you need to be aware that this is a real risk if you give your players complete freedom, because planning for every eventuality in such a big open world is an impossible ask. I run an exploration game myself, and I usually compromise on this point: when I don’t already know exactly how my party will be spending their session, I’ll email my players between games and lay out some of their options. Then I’ll ask for them to vote on what they want to do. Based on that, I plan my next session and it’s expected that the PCs will find IC reasons to go in the direction voted for.

Thirdly, there is only so much content you can generate for a campaign. A big world can feel empty compared to a campaign set in a city, for example, because you’ll create roughly the same amount of content for each but the scale of the city campaign is so much smaller. Because of this, it’s important if you do go for a large scale campaign that each “point of interest” actually is interesting and not too much time is spent on the bits in between. It’s worth glossing over two weeks of boring travel to get to the next exciting location. In my campaign, the first time the PCs travel to a new place I generally have a few encounters and challenges along their way. If they come that way again in future, we’ll generally time skip and assume they either avoid or overcome the dangers along the way unless there’s an important reason not to.

Make Rewards Matter

In Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, each new power and many of the items you eventually gain unlock new areas of the game. You won’t want to venture into the cold mountains without a potion against the cold or set of warm clothing. Similarly, you can’t go up Death Mountain unless you’re magically protected from the heat. Once you’re up there, you can buy heat resistant armour from the Gorons. There’s similar clothing that will keep you cool in the Garudo desert. Bomb arrows will make it easier to break some barriers that would have been tricky just using regular bombs, and fire arrows let you set things alight when you can’t otherwise reach them.

In Breath of the Wild there are actually often several solutions to a problem, so many times you can find a way even with suboptimal tools, but this type of design was even clearer in past Legend of Zelda titles. In every area you would encounter barriers you simply couldn’t get past until you earned some later item, and only then could you return to claim whatever treasure you’d left behind.

This is an approach I think can be valuable in a tabletop RPG when handing out magical items or other physical rewards to your PCs. With a little thought, treasure you hand out can be more than just a reward unto itself. It can be a gift that keeps giving to your game. For this to work, you’ll have to hand out items that have obvious applications or that you think could be used creatively, then occasionally work into your adventures areas where those items could be used in fun ways.

It’s not something I’ve particularly been doing up until now, but I would like to start! For instance, I gave my party a decanter of endless water a while back. Wouldn’t it be fun to include some puzzles they could solve or bypass using their source of endless water? Or what if I were to borrow a trick from Legend of Zelda and hand out some exploding arrows, then several weeks later present a combat encounter in a cavern, and describe some of the monsters as standing underneath a large stalactite. If they remember about the arrows, a sneaky sniper might be able to use one to bring that stalactite down, crushing those monsters and making the subsequent encounter easier—though with a newly created large area of difficult terrain.

In Conclusion

So there you have it: three lessons I’ve taken from video games. What are some other lessons you’ve learned from video games or other forms of media?