I attended a panel at my local gaming convention earlier this year and attended a couple of panels on RPG design. I’m also a big fan of podcasts, one of which is the Co-optional Podcast put on by the Polaris Network on Youtube. Both are about gaming (tabletop and video respectively), but I didn’t expect to encounter thoughts on the same style of design in both.
In both instances, panelists brought up a style of plot Alex Flagg referred to as the hourglass model. He used it to describe a method of adventure design, so that’s the way I’ll describe it, as it fits better with the general theme of this blog. You start with a base point, the hook that introduces characters to the plot, or the introduction to the campaign. From there, you move out into a sandbox style of play in which you defeat challenges that lead you closer to a major event. This major event acts as a bottleneck between the sandbox style of play and the rest of the adventure. Completing the bottleneck event leads the players to a new hook and into a second sandbox.
On the Co-optional Podcast, this was an example of a problem with Mass Effect. It always funnels you towards a particular set piece, despite having a free roam style of play, typically. I can’t say for sure how true this is, having only really played the first game. This was a problem with the design and took away from their enjoyment of the game. Now, when I was at the panel, I thought that this model was an improvement on the usual sandbox style of design because it gave forward momentum and a chance to create impressive set pieces.
One of the biggest issues, I think, with sandbox games in tabletop gaming is prep time. A linear story requires the least amount of preparation but grants the least player agency. A branching story has a balance between prep time and player agency. Sandbox style play has an immense amount of prep time but grants the most agency to players, often to the point of overwhelming them. To me, the hourglass style is a mix of the branching story and the sandbox. Players are moving towards the bottleneck but can plan how to do so. Having a bottleneck means that you can spend the time making an impressive set piece with complex mechanics or narrative impact without worrying that your players will miss it entirely. Your sandbox play can be looser, evolving organically in play because these important moments have more impact on the players.
Now, I’m a designer and GM first and a player second so my views on adventure/ campaign design are skewed towards set up and structure more than they are playability. When I heard the panelists on the Co-optional podcast cite this design philosophy as a problem I had a few issues. Notably, these people are players, not designers. I saw three possibilities:
1) This style of game only works in tabletop
2) This style of game is more appealing to designers than players
3) This style of play is not for everyone
I don’t have an answer. The reason for this post is to explain the problem. I may post later explaining the options in detail. Also, I may look at player agency and how it relates to design choices. Also, listed below are some links to the podcasts and panels I referred to today as well as Alex Flagg’s company. At time of posting, the recording of the Co-optional Podcast episode I mentioned isn’t up.