Over at Onlineroleplayer, Carlo One has an interesting article on linear vs. non-linear in role-playing games, with non-linear considered the “Holy Grail”. It got me to thinking about my own experiences with RPGS, both live and computer.

I concluded that RPGs in general are always linear, be they live or computer. Typically, the DM (we will include game devs here) comes up with some sort of plot. Let’s make it easy: Kill Foozle.

It doesn’t matter what he’s up to; the point is to stop him, preferably permanently. Of course, a really good villain might get away at the end, but at least his nefarious plan doesn’t succeed.

Regardless of what the PCs do (outside of refusing the mission), in the end they will have it out with Foozle. However winding the road, they will reach that moment.

What I’ve noticed in my live (face-to-face) games, is that they tend to be quite linear. There are very few, if any, “side quests”. Should there be some, almost always, they are related to the main task.

If the players go “off road”, it’s usually because they misinterpreted or missed a clue. Then the DM has to sweat a little to get them back on track.

By contrast, the typical CRPG is stuffed with little errands for the PCs to endure. Nonetheless, there is still a main path to the finale, which the players will reach sooner or later.

The one exception is the Elder Scrolls games, where a player can go around doing all sorts of things without touching the main line. Eventually, this becomes boring, because there is no real objective.

Once a goal is introduced, so is linearity. How does one get from here to there? The players need some sort of information, some amount of guidance, with which to work.

The advantage to live gaming is that players can be creative in overcoming obstacles (which need not be combat-oriented) in a way that computer games can’t handle, but a live DM can.

Only so much can be programmed in before the complexity becomes too much. Thus choice is fairly limited, although as Carlos points out, there are several means developers can use to present the illusion of choice.

It is much the same in live gaming. What the players can really do is dependent on what the DM puts in, and usually that material is designed to lead players to the ultimate confrontation with Foozle, even with a side trip or two along the way.

So I don’t think there’s any “Holy Grail” out there to find. All games are linear at bottom. What matters is how that linearity is handled. The story. The NPCs. The interaction between players. Choices that have results, even though they all lead (not always obviously) to where the DM wants the players to go.

In the end, all roads lead to Foozle.miniscorp

The Holy Grail at Onlineroleplayer