Last updated on September 11, 2020
Have you ever heard of Boblin, the Goblin? It’s this random goblin NPC that players spend hours getting to know, while ignoring more fleshed out characters in your game. It’s a pretty popular meme at the moment. It highlights the phenomenon where players choose to explore paths you didn’t prepare while ignoring the ones you do.
Why does this happen? After some thought, I realized I do this same thing when I play video games. Let’s look at the Witcher Series to illustrate.
Video Game Behavior
I love the Witcher 3 video game. The graphics are beautiful. I love the gameplay, the combat, and the social dialog. The side quests were varied and compelling with meaningful rewards. I thoroughly enjoyed story; it was engaging, rife with interesting characters, and set in beautiful locations.
One of the things that set this came apart was its ability to combine two distinct modes of gameplay: open world exploration, and story driven role play.
Open World Games
Open world games flesh out an entire world for you to explore. No place is off limits. The discoveries, items, powerups, and stories you uncover are all your own. This format comes at a couple of costs.
First, areas must be fleshed out and inviting, even locations that the player may not see in their playthrough. This requires a lot of work up front that may never be seen.
Second, the freedom to choose your own path messes with the sequencing, making it difficult to manage timelines required for story driven narratives.
Story Driven Role Play Games
Story driven games, on the other hand, require an established narrative, similar to a movie. Events happen and the player respond to it, triggering further events. Characters have agendas that drive the plot forward to a conclusion. These games require singular directions to tell stories. Since only one path will be taken, plots, stories, and ideas can be made more complex and satisfying, at the expense of player freedom. Limiting player freedom ensures all the key players stay alive long enough to fulfill their role.
Blending Styles of Game
Witcher 3 was able to blend the two styles of game effectively by essentially creating a fleshed out and developed open world, studded with triggered story scenarios.
When you enter a story scenario, timelines and characters become important, allowing you to play with a satisfying, fleshed out narrative. During this time, you must follow the plot; freedoms are taken away to serve the narrative. Once that story instance ends, you are again given the freedom to explore the world, changed after the consequences of the story.
This is a good compromise. You have the chance to explore on your own terms, then resume the more confining story when you are ready. An interesting trend emerges from this structure of gameplay – exploration does not significantly affect the overarching story. Specifically, the importance of time is lost during moments of exploration. You could spend weeks tracking down all the side quests available in that act and the story will wait for you. Conversely, some side quests can be locked after the events of a major story section, incentivizing exploring side quests first, even if it doesn’t make sense on a timeline.
Constraints on the Medium
Video games are expensive. Story driven RPGs can cost upwards of millions of dollars to finish. Each aspect developed in the world took significant amounts of time, money, and effort to get it to the finished product. Including both the open world and the narrative story introduces decision making and branched paths. Each meaningful branched path introduces a unique outcome that, by definition, will not be seen by a number of players. Video games must decide where best to invest their resources. “What paths are worth fleshing out?” “How do we let them choose without destroying the narrative?”
A video game can only program so many options. Out of necessity, the idea of a “guilt-free exploration” mechanic was born. You can take time to explore, the story will wait for you until you get back.
Exploration in TTRPGs
TTRPGs are a different medium from video games. They are an imagination based, story-driven game run on brain power. The GM sets the world. They frame decisions through narration and arbitrate the players’ choices through the system’s rules and their own logical reasoning.
As the GM, your brain renders the content. It develops characters, sets the mood, and illustrates details. The players experience the world in their minds, and make choices based on their characters’ personalities and backstories. The collective brainpower running the game allows the medium to be more agile and responsive. Decisions can be made on the fly, and consequences can be tailored to the unique decisions the PCs make.
This process does take time and effort, that’s why we prep. We take time to learn the rules of the world, the shape of the story, and the behaviors of the characters. Complex decisions are housed in scenarios that the players engage with on their way to accomplishing their goals. Mood, style, and details ornament the world. The more effort you take planning, the better you can sustain the world your players live in.
When you get to the table, the players are free to engage with your creation. In this medium, they are free to make choices you didn’t plan on. That is what makes TTRPGs so incredible—you can adapt and respond to anything the players do. If they take a novel approach to solving a main quest problem, you can lean on your world building and the core rules to adjudicate the outcome. If they want to go off into the unknown, you can generate it as they go. You can provide both the world, the choices, and the consequences.
Understanding Boblin the Goblin
The things we prepare more fleshed developed. This creates proverbial “Quest Markers” as they stand out so much more than the rest of the world. This triggers in each players’ mind, “This is the path to the quest”. Instead of taking the bait, they go the other way. They choose exploration.
People like to explore. They like to find hidden plots, items, and stories. Video games trained people to explore first because the plot will wait for you.
In this way, Boblin becomes everyone’s best friend. It’s a character just interesting enough to latch onto. There’s no quest marker over Boblin’s head. They can get to know him without being “locked in” to the timeline of the main quest. To solve this, we need to pull away from the way time works in video games. Time doesn’t have to stop when the main story does. In fact, time shouldn’t stop.
Time keeps moving.
Exploration is doing something that does not directly contribute to the main quest goals. To have true exploration, you need to know your characters goals to separate what does and does not directly accomplish them. If you are on the path, you’re doing what you need to meet the goal, and you are not exploring.
The allure of exploring promises something gained that you wouldn’t have gotten if you stayed on the path. Mechanical advantages (such as loot and experience), plot relevant clues and information, enhanced lore, and self-reflection are all potential rewards to exploring. Choosing to explore must come at a cost though, or it lacks sufficient weight. Incentives alone do not provide meaningful choice, there must be consequences.
In real life, we make choices every day. When we choose to be adventurous and try something new, we take time and resources away from our “main quests” in search of the novel, interesting, and meaningful. We give up the comfortable for the chance to gain something more. In TTRPGs, we can offer meaningful choice by keeping time moving forward, even when they are off exploring. Then, by ensuring choices that happen during a side quest affect the shape of the main quest, we ensure exploration has significant weight.
The world must change with each choice. Giving the chance to explore opens windows to potentially incredible and useful boons to help on your quest, but could close doors and create missed opportunities on the main trail.
Mechanics of Exploration
Your players will explore whether or not you create avenues for them to do so. The wonder of Tabletop games is the ability to do anything, be anything, and have the world respond accordingly. TTRPGs, more than any other medium, fosters joy, freedom, and individuality –cultivate that.
We get them to explore by providing interesting choice. Each interesting choice must have both an incentive and a cost. That’s the key. To explore the potential advantage, options close, the world changes, and time marches forward. If you create tantalizing side quests during your prep, you can channel their curiosity to areas you already prepped.
Start with your main quest. Figure out the timelines, scenarios, and choices surrounding the core goals. Then, determine 2 hooks that can lead to interesting side options. Don’t embellish too much or they will start to look like a “quest giver”. Consider characters with lovable quirks, obviously lying nobles, legends of magic items, or glowing trees in the meadow. Dress the hooks with lore describing the benefit the PCs could gain from going down that path. Remember, mechanical gains, plot relevant information, lore and character discovery are all good choices. Build a choice driven scenario “protecting” each potential gain.
At this point, determine the cost to following the thread. Make it obvious to the players so their choice can be well informed and meaningful. How much time could it take to explore this path? What are the dangers? Will there be combat? Could I ruin relations with an ally? Will it tip off the enemy? At minimum, determine the time lost. Then, figure what a success and failure would do to the overarching plot.
The success and failure states will help inform you on what their return to the main story will look like. Provide 2-3 clues to drive them back to the main story. Show them how the world changed around them as they took the time to explore. Don’t treat this as a punishment, rather, as a reminder that the world moves independently of them.
Let Them Explore
Your players will explore, channel that. Take the time to build exploration plots that reward players’ curiosity with mechanical, plot, and story benefits. Incorporate time and plot related costs to keep the decisions meaningful. In doing so, you optimize your prep by providing enticing avenues of exploration for your players to explore. As your players are given the opportunity to explore, they’ll find greater depth and ownership in the game.
If they still find ways to go down paths you don’t expect, make use of random tables, but that is a topic for another day.