GM Lessons #2: Running An Open World RPG

25 May GM Lessons #2: Running An Open World RPG

Running An Open World RPG - Immersion RPGWhat is an Open World RPG?

Quite simply, it is an RPG world that is unrestricted, unlimited, completely and utterly flexible and real to the players. By this we mean that the players aren’t restricted by any set path. Sure they will follow a storyline, but that storyline is fluid, and changes as they make certain actions within the story. Sure, the GM or Narrator may have a certain plot like that he is planning for them to follow, but it is really all determined by what the players do within the game world.

This means that if they decide to head off and do something else, then something else will be there, because it always was. It means that they could bump into something else in the middle of one quest, and accidentally caught up in something totally different.

It means that the world is real. 

Now this could just sound really difficult and confusing. Random, even. Like they’re just going to bumble around and get nothing done, have no real story, and end up bored.

But have a look at how real life goes. There is no set “story” that you absolutely have to follow! You could, at any time, end up going somewhere completely different. You don’t have to go to work. And yet you do. Why? Because you know the ramifications of not going to work. That being said, you might just throw caution to the wind and end up robbing a bank and skipping town to the Bahamas…it’s up to you!

A truly wise GM allows his players this sort of latitude in their actions.

But how do you actually do this? Because it isn’t possible to work out a thousand different plots all running simultaneously! You can’t work out the fine details of every single possible adventure around, down to floor plans, dungeons, baddie stats and everything else. So how, then, can you possibly make such an open world?

The solution lies in basic preparations, logic and thinking on your feet.

Basic Preparations

Basic Preparations are, to me, when I map out an area, and the general plot that I am interested in running for my characters. But I work it out loosely, because I’m not sure of all the twists and turns that are going to happen until the players get involved! It pays to not plan with too much detail too far ahead – because the moment any of the pcs deviate from your path, your intricate descriptions and plots may be ruined!

Instead, I work out what is happening in an area. Who is involved. The major players, their characters and agendas (each character usually only takes a few written words – my imagination details the rest as I go). I work out some of the tricks, traps, intrigues, betrayals, etc., that are going on in the area…. then I dump the players into the middle of it!

This means that things are constantly going on in the background. And the situation will continue to progress with or without the pcs there. But everything they do will have some ramifications on what is going to happen next, and what everyone else does.

Which brings us to the next point:


Logic is what you use once you know what is happening in the area (what the plot is). Now, every time the pcs come across, battle, annoy or befriend one the people in the plot, there will be ramifications. And also, if they neglect to do certain actions, then there will be other ramifications.

Maybe they kill one of the bad guys who was actually a double-agent and was going to give crucial information them later on. Uh oh. Now what? Guess they don’t get that information! Which may mean that they end up stumbling into an ambush, or having the Duke assassinated, or whatever other things that you think should happen. 

But I rarely ever just decide that there will be certain reactions. I roll for it. Let the dice decide! Nothing in life is certain, and sometimes something that seems certain will end up failing catastrophically.

Generally, I like to enhance the drama, danger and excitement of the story, rather than killing it off all at once by letting the bad guys just win, or the good guys just lose. Rather, I would look to see what might happen, roll for it, and then have these effects ripple out to the players.

For example, you might have planned on them hearing about the assassination attempt  on the Duke from the double-agent and then thought they could intercept the killers in their cave hideout and kill the leader before it ever happens. Instead, however, they killed the double-agent! Oops. Now what?

Related:  GMing Lessons #15: How to Make One-Shot Adventures

Well, now they’re caught completely unawares when the attack happens, and have the whole castle under attack by deadly black-clad assassins. They might be able to get to the Duke in time… but then again there are others (like the pretty serving maid and their friend the stabler) who will also be in danger. Who do they try and save? Maybe they will all be forced to split up to save the different people.

Either way, it will make for some crazily-intense battles within the confines of the castle.

And that ties in with the final point:

Thinking On Your Feet

Knowing the basic plot, the characters involved and their motivations, you can then think on your feet. When the characters throw you a curve ball you can deal with it. Because you know what is likely to happen.

Now in our earlier example, what happens if the Duke gets assassinated? Well, game over right? No. The story carries on. The assassin leader also kidnaps his daughter (as he was planning to do all along), and takes her back to his hideout to marry her by force and so claim the Duchy for his own!

The players will now have another choice to make. Do they try to follow the assassins and save the girl? Probably. But they’d better do it in time! Now every single roll they make will be nerve-wracking, as they know time is running out. That’s also what builds tension – the ramifications of failure. If they just need to track the assassins down, there’s no big deal if they fail on a roll. They’ve got plenty of time. But now… now they have to do it fast if they want to save the girl.

And what happens if they don’t get there in time? Well…roll a die. Chances are the assassin master will have married her and will claim the Duchy as his own. Work out what he’d do next. The characters will be one of the only things standing in his path, as every single rival claimant to the throne will likely be silenced by his assassins (unless the players have killed most of them). Their sense of outrage at the crimes committed by the assassin master will fuel further tension and emotion, which is great for storytelling. They might even be captured, which would be even more brutal, and would make their desire for revenge intense. 

And then what would happen? Maybe the escape… maybe not. Up to them, and the dice. But if they don’t, rather than just killing them off with a headsman, the assassin master might just sell them into slavery instead! Decide, or roll a die.

You get the picture.

Character-Driven Plot

What this makes for is a very fluid, character-driven plot that is never the same for any player who might be run through the same adventure. Actually I never run the same adventure again, though I might recycle a few plot points here and there, I mix them in within the context of the current player group.

And one really awesome thing about that is the players can actually feel like they are influencing and affecting the world around them. Things change because of what they have done. The ripples can go far and wide. And they’re never just playing the same story that someone else has also done. Their stories, accomplishments and defeats are theirs alone. And let’s face it, that’s pretty cool.

This sort of gameplay works well in any setting, but it particularly suits our new upcoming game Immersion RPG. If you’re interested in getting involved, we are currently looking for playtesters. It’s free to download, and it’s really, really fun.

And of course. if you have any comments or questions on running an Open World RPG, please do let me know!

Oliver R. Shead

  • aaro
    Posted at 05:05h, 27 May Reply

    Excellent tips! I’ve been considering running a sandbox game, and have been checking out a number of great resources like hexographer, Don Jon’s random everything generator, and more – all great sources of inspiration and direction.

    I’ll be adding these tips to my list of resources. Thanks for sharing!

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