When Role Playing Games first made it to the video gaming scene, they were essentially tabletop games converted to a solo adventure. Stories about going to slay the monsters in dungeons and save the princess like we would do with our friends on game night.
These titles would then expand into game series like Wizardry, Ultima, Dragon Quest, Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. These games were many hour epic adventures that have only gotten bigger, filled with complex story lines, random encounters, all sorts of items and treasures and caves and everything that basically made Dungeons and Dragons the sort of tabletop adventure it was, except you didn’t need a Game Master to tell the story or friends to play it with, as you were in control of everything.
One of the hints you would get with games like these was to take constant notes as you would need to puzzle out things that were said and clues could be scattered all throughout the land. One city might have a clue to a puzzle in another city, and without writing it down you would forget it if you stopped playing for any period of time. This is something you will see players doing to this day in table top while video games realized they will not keep audiences glued to them to completion and since added quest journals to remind you of where you left off when you return to the game. The quest journal then brought way to the quest marker to make it easier to work with and the next evolution was a pathway on map or minimap in some games to lead you right to the marker in question.
However, in a tabletop game, your players don’t have the luxury of having some magical glowing trail leading them to where they need to be. This is especially true if we want to be considered running a true open world or sandbox style game. As a Gamemaster, you have the universe to present to the players and let them get their bearings from it as they decide where to head to next. In Disneyland terms, a specific point that draws players towards it is called a weenie, which Walt named based on how the pet dog would follow him around when he had the hot dog. Things like the main Cinderella castle to use to get their bearings. You can see some great examples of this, and more tricks, in a Game Developers Conference talk Everything I Know About Game Design, I Learned From Disneyland.
In applying this to your game, you could have players have to use it to find their way around, though a lot of games turn this into a survival check, but it would be described in the style of Miasmata using landmarks to find your position. Instead, to make things interesting for the players, you will be using them to directly catch their attention and make players wonder what is over there, like a huge mountain in the distance or a sprawling city attracting them, such as when we first encounter Mos Eisley in A New Hope., the characters are on a hilltop looking out at the city when we get the “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. If that is not a weenie attracting players to a target, I don’t know what is.
Think about the visually appealing features your players will come across in your world. You can use them to entice that there is something there they may want to look at, like the idea of Sheba’s Breasts in King Solomon’s Mines, which is essentially a mountain shaped like a breast and is more common than one might think. Everest is another example, as George Mallory is reported to have answered why he climbed it with ‘Because it was there’. Sounds like Player Character justification to me. Referring back to Disney, this is essentially Pocahontas’ justification as she sings in Just Around The Riverbend:
I look once more just around the river bend
Beyond the shore somewhere past the sea
Don’t know what for why do all my dreams extend
Just around the river bend, just around the river bend
I have used mountains as examples because they are visually dominant, much like the Cinderella castle in Disneyland, but as Mos Eisley shows us anything can be used as a weenie if it gives the players a reason to go investigate it. When in the middle of a grassland or forest area, a shoreline can be a weenie as it is something different than what the players are experiencing. Changing the environment occasionally keeps things from getting monotonous, and giving them some sneak peaks at it coming up will drive them towards it. This is the same as mentioning a ruined site in the distance or stating there are remains of some fallen warriors where a battle took place. These things may not have anything for the players to gain as a reward beyond some little trinkets, but they will attract the player and keep them more interested in your game as opposed to an eventless slog through an environment. Also, from a Gamemaster design viewpoint, besides maybe adding a few puzzles or skill checks (like climbing a ruined wall or jumping over collapsed floor), this allows you to give the players a new experience without adding just another random combat encounters which not all players or Gamemasters like.
When you sit down to design your adventures for the players to experience, make sure that you give something that will draw their attention to an area besides the desire for money and experience. Players, on average, will get bored of the mindless wading through enemies in a tabletop game faster than they will in a video game, because they are interacting with other people. If you are looking for interesting sorts of places to give to players, there are many examples that you can look at, such as tour sites like Lonely Planet, or such videos like Top Ten Most Underappreciated Wonders of the World , 25 Places You Have To See Before You Die, or referring back to video games, Illusion of Gaia’s stops at famous landmarks like this one done by Game Theory, which also discusses about integrating the area you are exploring into the narrative.
So, it may be a small world after all, but there is so much riches in there to explore. While you should follow tips about making your characters believable like writers will tell you, be sure to do the same to your world, make it a varied and interesting character that your players want to get to know. Joss Whedon even did a nine minute documentary clip Serenity was the 10th character of Firefly. This was taken so much to the point that the actors would prefer to relax in the ship’s lounge between takes instead of going to their green rooms. Does your world fit into the story of your game in the same way? Is it a background character that the characters pass by without acknowledgement or does it play a central role where the players have interactions with it on regular occasions? In the future, I will talk about ways to bring the character of the world out for players to experience but just let your mind run wild and think about how you experience the world, as it is all around you.