GM Style Overview

So over the last three weeks I’ve looked at three different styles of GMing, Linear, Semi-linear, and Sandbox. I thought it’d be good to do an overview and directly compare them. The real question, of course, is which one is best? And that’s a complicated one to answer, because they’re good for different things. I also want to try and illustrate what they’re like a bit better by using example of video games which execute these styles particularly well. If you haven’t played these games, I highly recommend them. So let’s get right to it.

Best
When I say best, what I mean is that it’s a better fit to a campaign than the other two styles. If it does everything that could be expected within the game without extraneous bits or straining credulity, then it’s the best. However, there are other things that go into campaigns, which can make each of them better for those purposes. I’ve touched on this a bit in the last three posts, and I’ll expand on it here now that I’ve laid the groundwork.

Linear

Linear is best when things are short or episodic. The longer something is sustained, the richer the continuity is expected to be, and the greater the frustration with not being able to affect the world in the ways which you desire. A great example of this in rpgs is Spirit of the Century, a pulp rpg which essentially features the PCs as characters in a novel, encouraging them to follow along with a central narrative. The first example I always use for linearity in video games is Final Fantasy IV, which has interesting characters, twists, and a plot, but gives the player essentially no choice but to go along for the ride and fight monsters. Still, in its context, it’s a really fun time. However, that example might be a little unfamiliar, so a further one would be Bioshock. Though a shooter, it also has a linear story with an incredible atmosphere and setting. The common thread through all of these though, is that the player’s choices are less meaningful. They can affect the means by which they resolve the situations, but rarely the outcomes and never the direction of the narrative (if they can, then it’s not linear).

Semi-Linear

Semi-linear is best when the campaign has a predefined scope. At that point it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. It acknowledges elements of player agency by letting them make meaningful choices about when and how they do things, but follows an underlying narrative structure that keeps them moving. The best example of this that I’ve found in video games is Dragon Age, where the game moves through phases, and the player can explore the dungeons and do the major quests of a phase in almost any order, but they all have to be finished in order to move onto the next phase. In rpgs, semi-linear campaigns are often themed, such as a pirate themed campaign, or a courtly intrigue campaign, and these conventions set the boundaries for the narrative and the possibilities. However, the challenge inherent to the semi-linear style is when and whether to shift gears as the players’ interests change. if the courtly intrigue campaign becomes a gunslinger campaign, it can involve enforcing the boundaries, which can lead to friction.

Sandbox

Sandbox is best for long term and exploratory campaigns. Using a setting rife with points of interest and turning the PCs loose in it lets them set the tone for the game and furnishes them with the widest range of meaningful choices that the mechanics permit. A good example of sandbox play in action is World of Warcraft which, for all its faults (it’s hard to please 11 million people, I imagine), invites players to explore the world and tries to provide compelling characters and choices for them. Eve Online is another example of a well implemented sandbox, letting players set the theme and win conditions of their gaming experience, whether that’s flying a lot of missions, player vs. player, commanding fleets, organizing large corporations, or even just becoming wealthy and powerful. The challenge of sandbox, which can be seen in Eve and WoW as well, is keeping players motivated, and the best way to address that is to encourage them to get involved with and leave a mark on the setting.

Which is best overall? I have to acknowledge some bias here, but I think there’s some strong arguments for Sandbox, because it can contain the other two as necessary. If I’m running a sandbox game, and the players decide that they want to do something in a linear or semi-linear style for a while, we can do that within the context of the sandbox game. If, in the middle, they start pushing out to explore other options, sandbox accommodates that. At no point during that is the GM placing additional restrictions on the choices of the players. They can choose linearity, and choose when to leave it. There’s no deviation possible, because there’s no path but what they make. But what do you think? Are there strong arguments that would change these evaluations? What other games do you think show these styles particularly well? As always, I look forward to hearing from you.

3 comments

  • Dave G _ Nplusplus

    For an adventure game, I still prefer Semi-Linear over Sandbox, just so that there is a structured enjoying quest chain to follow.

    LARP to me is still an example of sandbox. Aside from the stories the ST creates, there's usually also a narrator or even another ST.. the characters have a city that's already around them. Characters create their own stories, and investigate those created by each other.

    Most FPS could be said is linear, not just Bioshock… Though Borderlands would be more semi-linear since you choose what order to do quests in. Something like Fahrenheit is more a mix of linear and semi.. semi, because at each portion of the story, you choose which character to play first, but it's still a linear game.

    Looking at game examples, I'm wondering if there's a blurring between Sandbox and Semi-Linear. Semi-Linear could have multiple endings… Sandbox certainly does… in that regards, what's the difference from a plot perspective? Is it just how it's built?

    I'm thinking of stuff like Dragon Age or Fallout… I'd say Semi-Linear, because then end in roughly the same place. (Assuming for Fallout, but don't spoil it for me) So what would it take to make the step to Sand Box? More options and freedom? Allow the Grey Warden to join the Blight? To gtfo and leave to Tevinter? Can video games be truly Sandboxed if a programmer has to create all the options? But WoW is certainly sandboxes.. so how is that different from WoW? WoW has very little connected quests before you wander somewhere else…

    Does that mean that the true difference between Sandbox and Semi-Linear is the level or length of questing? From an OOC perspective, maybe Sandboxing lends better to not playing too often or for short attention spans… I just like the drive of a long semi-linear quest.

  • Hi Dave,
    You seem to be asserting that the LARP example is somehow different than a tabletop one, but the only difference seems to be the scale. Additional storytellers and narrators exist to manage the number of players a LARP attracts, and don't seem to make the difference between sandbox and semilinear. I think that most LARPs make a strong effort to be sandbox style, though.

    As for games like Fahrenheit and Borderlands, you appear to have addressed your own concern. If a game has branching bits, then it's not linear. If it's not linear, and it's not a sandbox, then it's semi-linear. Semilinear covers the spectrum of options between a linear story and sandbox play.

    I think you're right that sandbox and semi-linear games can often look similar, though. If the options in semi-linear are wide enough, it can seem like the players can do anything. However, the truth is that they still have to take the options the GM gives them.

    To illustrate through a simile, imagine standing on a playground, and I'm the engineer who built it. In linear play, I say "Go on the slide! You can only go on the slide!"

    In semilinear, I would say "Hey, you can go on this slide, or on the jungle gym, and if you advance, I'll open up the merry-go-round."

    In sandbox, I look around at the playground I built and say "Go play. There's all kinds of stuff to play with, so go use it how you want to."

    Note the difference in what you can do, and how my decisions affect the fun that you're able to have. It's not about how long you play on the playground, but about how you and your options are treated. Does that make sense?

  • Dave G _ Nplusplus

    It does, and I think that's what I was saying too.

    I was just pointing out a personal preference in the different story styles with gaming styles.

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