Go Nowhere with Side Quests

In recent months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Red Dead Redemption 2. I started before the holidays, and the slow pace of the early game tripped me up. It took some cognitive adjustment (and a few tutorial articles) to get my bearings in this new version of the Old West. The game is beautiful, and gives players a vast canvas to devote countless hours to do – well, just about anything.

From hunting wildlife to donating to beggars to playing poker to bonding with a horse to furthering women’s rights to shooting up a “the whole damn town” with a frenemy, Red Dead Redemption 2 gives players a trainload of options for how to spend their time while controlling Arthur Morgan. In addition to tens of hours of primary plot lines to follow, which I’m still nowhere near completing yet, the game has various tiers of what I’ll label Random Encounters. It is these encounters – and how they could relate to a tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons – that have been on my mind in recent days.

Arthur
Arthur Morgan – Friend. Outlaw. Legend.

I wrote years ago how I learned to structure D&D sessions like the original Red Dead Redemption. At the time, I was running a 4th Edition campaign setting that I was making up on the fly. I needed to build a foundation in my mind so I didn’t get lost in my own world. Enter my experience with games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption:

In games such as Red Dead Redemption, the NPCs drive the story forward. I mentioned above that a player can travel to specific locations on the world map to trigger the next story mission; the icons on the map are the names of important NPCs in the world. The player knows at any time during the game the NPCs that are available to trigger a story mission. I used this design to build my campaign.

Back then, I channeled my preparation time into creating prominent NPCs that players could interact with during sessions, knowing the general areas and missions those NPCs would trigger. It was a formula that worked well with my group, and helped me prepare for each session. Clearly, adventure books and modules accomplish this same goal; those texts provide details on important NPCs, and the DM steers the players in the direction of those NPCs to advance the plot.

Where Red Dead Redemption 2 is intriguing is that some tiers of the Random Encounters do not serve a purpose in the classic sense of game design. Completing the encounters does not increase skills, earn your character money, or unlock new items. The encounters are simply there; they exist to be experienced by the player. It’s rather strange because many other areas of the game drive you to complete specific actions to craft an item, earn more money, or improve your character or equipment in some way.

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Ride The Rails Like A Rockstar

The question of whether a DM should force the party along rails or allow them to stomp around in a sandbox continues to be addressed. The topic was discussed heavily in a blog carnival last year, and most recently this week at Critical Hits. It is not a new concern for DMs, and there are numerous suggestions for how to effectively run a sandbox style game for your PCs. My approach to the campaign I run has been slightly different, and I think other DMs may benefit from the structure I use to balance PC flexibility with central story arcs. The following post is my attempt to describe my structure for running the world and handling the railroad/sandbox situation.

Before 2009, I did not play D&D for over 15 years. I filled in that time with countless hours playing computer and console games – mostly action, RPG and sports titles. It is a major influence in how my brain functions to prepare adventures for my D&D campaign. When I received the opportunity to DM once again, I decided to create my own world for the PCs to inhabit. I leaned on the structure of certain videogame titles to keep my sanity and not have the process of “building a world” become too overwhelming.

Red Dead Redemption
Don't fear the rails. Own them.

Specifically, I relied on a model used by Rockstar Games for titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. Both of these games offer expansive worlds for the players to explore while participating in a wide variety of activities. However, there is also a primary storyline the player can complete at their leisure. Recently, I took a break from Dragon Age Origins (80+ hours in and still haven’t finished it!?) to play Red Dead Redemption. The game is phenomenal, and I got wrapped up in that for a few weeks while completing the game’s primary storyline. There are several interesting components to the Rockstar titles that translate well into building a D&D campaign.

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