How to Run a Non-Linear Game You Can Be Proud Of
Who remembers the old PC game ‘Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall’? It caused me to spend way too much time glued to my computer screen when I should have been doing my homework. For me, the allure was the non-linear nature of the game. There was a core plotline and related quests, but you could spend hundreds of hours happily ignoring that part of the game while exploring the countless dungeons, towns, and ruins across the continent of Tamriel.
You can take a non-linear approach to DMing, too. Rather than running your party through a pre-planned sequence of encounters, non-linear campaigns involve drawing up a rich and vibrant world, and then setting the PCs loose to explore it.
If this sounds daunting, well… it can be. Some DMs get nervous when they imagine their PCs running amok through the world. But non-linear campaigns don’t have to be exercises in chaos. With a little management and a lot of creativity, they can be loads of fun.
Non-Linear Campaigns are Fun – for Some Players
If your players enjoy adventure and exploration, they might enjoy a non-linear campaign. This is especially true if they’re seasoned gamers. After twenty years of being forced down linear quest paths, some players enjoy the chance to explore a world on their own terms.
On the other hand, brand new players might need more guidance than a non-linear game provides. Some players really enjoy linear plotlines and the sense of accomplishment they get after each encounter. Your players’ preferences should dictate the type of game you run; after all, you’re running it for them.
So if your PC party is choosing where to go and when, how will you know what to plan for? That brings us to the next fact about non-linear games.
Non-Linear Campaigns are Easy – for Some DMs
There are two approaches you can take when running a non-linear campaign. Your first option is to create a fully fleshed-out world full of NPCs, towns, dungeons, factions, and encounters. Wherever your party decides to go, you’ll have an idea of who they’re going to interact with, which quests will be offered to them, and what sorts of hazards they’ll face. This sort of campaign runs a lot like a non-digital MMORPG. If you’re really into world-building and don’t mind all the prep work, you could try this approach.
But maybe you’re the type of DM who likes to wing it. If you’ve got a quick wit and a love for improvisation, you can dodge a lot of pre-game preparation. Armed with outlines of your world and your central plotline, you can fill in the other details on the fly. Just make sure to take note of all the places and personas your party encounters; players get frustrated when they plan their actions based on the details you gave them last session, only to find that those details have changed by the next session.
How to Keep the Party Together
So what happens when your paladin wants to charge into a dungeon, your cleric wants to visit a temple, and your fighter wants to engage in some drunken shenanigans at the local pub? Some DMs make a house rule that requires the party members to stay together no matter what. Others work out a compromise. For example, the PCs can split up in town to take care of their business, but only for a short time. The game won’t progress until they’re all together again.
There should be a rule (or at least an understanding) in place to keep the PCs from scattering to the four corners of the world. That type of situation isn’t fun for anyone, least of all the DM. When your attention is split between the party members, it’s a certainty that some players will be sitting around bored while you deal with the others. Assistant DMs could help in this situation, but D&D works best when a party sticks together.
Offer Plot Hooks, Not Plot Hammers
Some of the worst games I’ve ever played involved DMs who forced their plots on the PCs. I even came up with a sarcastic speech for the antagonists featured in these heavy-handed plots: “Hi! You don’t know me, but you have offended me greatly. No matter what you do, I will make your life a living hell until you figure out exactly how the DM wants you to deal with me. Have a nice day.”
Plot hammers are no fun for imaginative players. Plot hooks, on the other hand, can keep your non-linear game active without forcing the PCs to go down a specific path. When the party enters a new territory, throw them some plot hooks. But be prepared for them to ignore a few. If you want to push a specific plot hook, shower the PCs with consequences when they refuse to get involved.
Did an old woman beg the PCs for help, only to be ignored? Maybe she was warning them of stirrings in the local cemetery. Now the town is overrun by undead, and a necromancer has deposed the local lord. This problem could have been nipped in the bud if only the PCs had taken the bait.
Consequences offer you all kinds of opportunities to generate further plot hooks. They’re also a better choice than forcing PC involvement. Eventually the problem will inconvenience the party enough that they’ll decide on their own to do something about it. Once it’s dealt with, they’ll move on to another part of the world and another set of quests and plot hooks.
Do you run a non-linear campaign, or just have thoughts you’d like to share on the subject? I look forward to seeing your ideas in the comments section!