Plot Claustrophobia in Managed Campaigns

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Russ Nicholson

When I’m playing in an RPG and I can tell that the world is basically revolving around the party, I get claustrophobic. That’s the only word I can think of that really matches the sensation. The boundaries of the world shrink. What creatures lurk in this forest? The ones that drive the story forward! What do the major faction in this city want? To hire or kill the party, of course!

Along with this comes the implicit expectation that the DM has put a lot of work into this experience and it would be rude to just drop everything and establish a hog-wrestling arena, even if that would be more entertaining. In a “managed” campaign like this, it feels like the game world is always watching. Long lost relatives and villains from your backstory are always popping into existence at thematically appropriate times. Carefully laid plans are overturned or validated based on whether they “added to the narrative” rather than whether they made sense. Intangible themes and character development arcs hedge you in at every turn, even if only by social pressure.

Maybe what it comes down to is that I like exploring, understanding, and manipulating systems (like the rules of a fictional world), while in managed campaigns you’re really trying to understand and anticipate a person, the DM. I find that deeply off-putting, for reasons that probably reveal more about me than anything else. I like my game worlds as open, adventure-dense, and utterly uncaring as possible.

But I can’t be the only one who actively avoids the main quests in Elder Scrolls Games, right?

17 Comments

  • Levi

    December 6, 2019 at 6:07 AM Reply

    Love that last line, that cemented the thesis of the post in my head.

  • Jason Abdin

    December 6, 2019 at 7:22 AM Reply

    My favorite way of playing Skyrim is to just wander in a random direction and see what happens. There’s a great mod on PC, forget the name, but it gives you a random starting spot different from the usual boring intro in the cart. You can be a bandit, caravan guard, a random villager dude, and a bunch of other stuff.

    But yeah, it took me a long time to find the style of TTRPG play that you describe, but it is absolutely my favorite, both as a player and GM, and I do everything I can to improve at that style and hone my skill set.

  • cc

    December 6, 2019 at 10:20 AM Reply

    I know just what you’re talking about, Ben, and I’d argue that the feeling you’re describing is directly adjacent to the issue at the heart of the Quantum Orge debate: How is a game’s context defined?

    If a game’s context (e.g. Which path the ogre is down) is defined by meta-significance (i.e. What players consider relevant and interesting), then that game can start to feel ‘claustrophobic’ when players begin to perceive a causal relationship between what they personally care about and what happens in the game. The more the context of a game world is driven by meta-significance (as opposed to player-agnostic, associated-in-the-alexandrian-sense context), the more players will feel their own influence on events that should ostensibly be causally independent of player influence. For example, if a group of PCs just happens to run across their archnemesis in the woods, this is a coincidence from the perspectives of the PCs but an obvious narrative contrivance from the perspectives of the players. And the more players feel like events in a game world are contrived according to what they find relevant and interesting, the smaller that game world feels because what could happen seems to become constrained by what they already know and care about. I think this narrowing of a game’s perceived possibility space is the feeling you’re describing in your claustrophobia metaphor. And obviously (I think?) a smaller possibility space undermines discovery and exploration in any game.

    In a game with the goal of telling an interesting and engaging story, I’d say that the meta-significant method of establishing context is effective and appropriate. But in game about making decisions in a fictional context (i.e. a roleplaying game), I’d say that context should be established in a manner that is as agnostic to the decision makers/players as possible because this maximizes player agency (by making the Quantum Ogre deterministic). So, which method is appropriate comes down to a particular table’s expectations and desires for their game.

    Having said that, I do want to clarify that I believe that most games are run using a patchwork of methods for establishing fictional context and that this patchwork places them on a spectrum between ‘roleplaying’ and ‘storytelling’ as I’ve been using the terms here. I’m not trying to define the right way to play roleplaying or storytelling games. I’m just trying to clarify the, perhaps, non-obvious effect that the way context is determined has on a game.

    And if you feel tension between your expectations for a game’s context and the reality of that game’s context, then that’s (as many problems are) a miscommunication at the table that can be solved by talking about it. But, obviously, understanding the relevant concepts more clearly makes that conversation much easier to have. So, I think there’s a lot of value in posts like the one you’ve made here because they help to open up those conversations by talking about the feelings that arise from that type of tension.

    For me, the bottom line is that the better you understand the relationship between player perception of a game’s possibility space, how a game’s context is established, and how narrative and verisimilitude emerge from the collision of these two things, the more satisfying any roleplaying or storytelling game will be.

    • Ben

      December 6, 2019 at 3:04 PM Reply

      Completely agree, Courtney.

      • cc

        December 7, 2019 at 4:27 AM Reply

        I’m actually not Courtney Campbell, but I do see how you came to that conclusion haha It had never occurred to me that he and I have the same initials.

        Glad I read you right on this. I think it’s a very ripe topic, especially in design discussions oriented towards context-focued OSR trends. Personally, I see Into the Odd as best current example of that style of design and play.

        • Ben

          December 7, 2019 at 6:14 PM Reply

          That’s funny, your writing even sounds like him.

  • Alistair Langsford

    December 6, 2019 at 10:34 AM Reply

    Never played Elder Scrolls (or any other computer games other than Doom, a long time ago) – but I think I get what you mean. My first ever game, AD&D 1e, met my expectations. We explored, and what we encountered was ‘what was there’ – generated ahead of time, or randomly on the fly (we could never tell – we had some good GMs), but never tailored to ‘us’. It was up to us to be smart about it, and we never got let off the hook as far as I could tell. Those were good games, and were what got me into the hobby for the long term.

  • TimWest

    December 6, 2019 at 5:01 PM Reply

    This is one of the reasons I lean towards creating setting details procedurally.

    I want to sidestep the feeling that the world is there for the players, even if it happens unconsciously by following tropes and cliches.

  • Heike

    December 6, 2019 at 8:13 PM Reply

    If it doesn’t involve the players, then *why is it there*? Irrelevant detail must be trimmed as much as possible. Player time is precious, and wasting their time leads to bored players and no-shows at gaming sessions.

    Only robots want to play a spreadsheet. RPGs are interactive improv theater. They are inherently about the relationships between the people involved and developing those relationships in interesting ways that would never occur IRL. If your favorite RPG is Microsoft Excel, I know some strategy games that would be perfect for you.

    • Ben

      December 6, 2019 at 9:46 PM Reply

      You are making some pretty extreme generalizations. For example, you said that “RPGs are interactive improv theater.” This is completely false for a huge number of tables out there.

      There’s nothing wrong with playing D&D the way you like it, but not everyone enjoys playing RPG in the same way as you. Telling other people they’re “doing it wrong” isn’t going to get you far.

      • Heike

        December 6, 2019 at 11:32 PM Reply

        D&D is about people, not numbers. That’s not roleplaying. You want numbers, play a computer game.

        Conservation of detail is a well-known literary device. If it doesn’t drive the plot forward in some way, cut it.

        • Ben

          December 7, 2019 at 4:10 AM Reply

          I don’t know where your thing with “numbers” is coming from. It certainly wasn’t anywhere in my post.

          Conservation of detail is a literary trick. RPG, however, are not literature. Details that don’t involve the players are there to make the setting feel more real and give players plenty of opportunities to interact with it if they want to. I enjoy RPGs that aim to build a lush, interconnected possibility space, not a plot line.

          Even in literature, conservation of detail is not universal. Some great books like Gormenghast aim to build dense, layered settings for readers to get lost in rather than plots or character arcs.

          In literature and in RPGs there are an infinite number of ways that can work just fine, depending on the kind of people who are playing/reading. There are no universal rules.

  • ə

    December 7, 2019 at 12:54 AM Reply

    Levi’s right, that last line really t-shirts the post. I’m not read on TTRPG meta so i can’t comment in context, but i’m glad you feel that a pressure to perform kills a spirit of play. With Chosen One plots, my Logic is often found stabbing my Conceptualization in the heart But i do like feeling vital as a player; if could choose where to have Chosen One plots, i’d have them in the player’s internal struggles — haunting memories, antagonistic habits, psychedelics, a strongest skills’ negative side effects. Pressuring me into stuff sounds like a job my brain can do, no cardboard queen required.

    is verbing nouns more acceptable than nouning verbs?
    not that pressure kills play outright, just that it kills a fae in a player, disabling some connection once in charge of creating that part of the person.
    to take a page out of Disco Elysium’s skill list https://youtu.be/iMsgs5viEbg?t=80
    Because there, it makes perfect sense to be the Chosen One — you’re the identity your body chose to make. And Chosen One RPGs have that internal struggle of producing you splattered all over the walls. Folding those struggles back up and placing them back inside the player to do their freeform stuff keeps both GM content and player context alive.
    can do not only just fine but can do beautifully; it’s disorienting for me to see what should be only internal dialogue about free will instead stand before my group in the shape of a stellar queen telling us to bring back the son or else the planet dies. Like, srsly, can’t my brain do that?

    While playing a 3DS game, i tried writing the game’s event as though they were internal struggles: monsters as migraines, weapons as stretches, ect. I had fun translating, but more importantly — it was really easy to translate all of the adversaries into internal struggles while increasing the meaningfulness of the story in relation to my character tremendously.

    Bravely Default

  • Grey Wizard

    December 13, 2019 at 4:07 PM Reply

    The protagonist of the Truman Show feels this too!

    • Ben

      December 14, 2019 at 2:49 AM Reply

      “Trumany” is a way better term than “Plot Claustrophobic.”

  • Venger Satanis

    January 28, 2020 at 9:25 PM Reply

    A friend of mine sent a link to this post as I was recently blogging about the differences between authentic and epic RPG experiences. Sounds like you’re in the authentic camp.

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