Guidance is not railroading in an Open World
There is a lot of things written about what is allowed in open world sandbox rpgs. But if a Fallout game doesn’t know how to make a sandbox I don’t who can. Infinite choices open up as you wake up in the Mojave. You are pushed out of the Doctor’s comfortable home with a mission, get to New Vegas, learn who shot you and why. Throughout the game you can see the shining light of Vegas over the mountains.
It struck me like a recent moment in one of campaigns. Many of the players had met people who were meeting at a specific cafe. The character were dubious about the cafe because they knew at least one of these people was connected to a criminal organization. But the constant stream of people mentioning it began to turn into a joke to the players. “Haha Nick, you want us to go that cafe don’t you?” There are warnings with this sort of gaming that it becomes a railroad.
Everyone in the Mojave mentions the lights of Vegas, quests to discover your past point to Vegas, the lights are there on the horizon. Aren’t you being railroaded to go to Vegas? Of course not. You make your own path. Guiding players down one path and not another is not railroading. Fallout even discourages you from taking the quick route to Vegas. You can just head North past a quarry and go East a little and its a minutes walk, not the trek across the map Fallout seems to want of you. But there are Deathclaws, lots of them.
But following the guidance to Vegas is still a choice. Not traveling through Deathclaw territory at first level is a choice. What sets this guidance apart from iron clad tracks is that it is giving you information to make a choice. Fallout New Vegas constantly excels at these choices, it hints over and over so that you know what you are choosing. Sometimes you have to search for those hints, but those hints are never forcing you to do one thing or another.
Little Stories can add up to Big Stories
I screwed up Veronica’s quest. I don’t remember the exact decision I made, but I screwed up big. Veronica went to talk to the Follower’s of the Apocalypse, people who want to help humanity with old world tech. But jealous Brotherhood soldiers turned up and killed the followers. Veronica was exiled. It was bad. And I didn’t have the saves to fix it.
So I had to live with that. A little personal problem with Veronica that I screwed up. And when I had to make other decisions later it was there to think about. Later when I had to choose who to bring ED-E to, or how to help Arcade Gannon, or whether to ask the Brotherhood to help the NCR that personal story between me and my punch happy companion mattered.
I also helped Boone, and god damn did I want to help the NCR more for it.
You don’t need Dice Rolls
As a table top gamer dice might seem like the be all and end all of gaming. But Fallout has a nice crips system for skill checks, do you have the high enough number?
Dialogue options are often opened up if you have 30 or 40 in whatever relevant skill. Some things are opened up by having the right perk, the most memorable were my uses of the Black Widow perk. No dice rolls, no random chance used at all.
Because failing a dialogue option would have been miserable. Instead I was rewarded for investing in skills. But since I could chose to use them I could chose how my character approached problems. I might know that a high GUNS skill would get information, but so does high SURVIVAL, or SPEECH.
To top it off the game gave you magazines so you could temporarily up your skill, when you really wanted to talk someone down, or earn their respect but had just a little less than what was needed.
Often these sorts of tests were also just an expression of how much more information I might get. Without every test being at the expense of progressing they were easy to forgive if I couldn’t make it.
Game’s Cheat, and it’s Okay
Fallout New Vegas is an old game with an older engine. It cheats a lot. In a game about your impact on a huge landscape it has to cheat to trick you into thinking there is real change. But the game can’t have two or three versions of every location, instead it can use simple tricks to make you think there are.
The obvious example is the Battle of the Dam, the end of the game. And spoilers to anyone like me who has waited a long time to play this game. Unless you are evil enough to join Cesar, any of the other three choices lead you to the same side of the dam.
In other places the game tricks you into thinking things have changed by allowing you or stopping you from entering certain places. Blow something up and the door is now locked. Stop a bomb on a train and now guards are posted who refuse to let you pass because they’re still investigating. It might be a trick, but in the end its easy to believe.
These tricks are harder to use in table top games, but you should remember that it’s okay to cheat. When I’m struggling to generate new stats for a new boss or a new monster I often just use the stats of something different and rename the powers. What’s the real difference between a troll without its regeneration and an ogre? (I don’t need real answers to that, thanks.)
The simple change of where the players are allowed to go can often be an easy way to show that things have changed without needing a whole new description.
And a branching choice laden game might all boil down to one battle where the only difference is what allies the players have while they storm the same enemy fort.