One of the things I like about the Thursday campaign is that Josh is so ambitious. The current story is that we were hired to guard a caravan delivering supplies to a town at the top of a mountain pass. When we get there, we are told that they are under attack by ancient primal Warforged (a very creative idea by itself) and that if we want to help the town, we need to pick one of the three main troublemakers to hunt down and bring to justice. Our choice will determine more than the type of monsters we fight. It will also effect how the town benefits and the rewards we receive. This is an excellent way to give players choices, which is often problematic in roleplaying games.
When developers talk about MMOs, they often speak of “sandbox” and “amusement park” design and this perspective also applies to us. Minecraft is an excellent example of a sandbox-style game. The idea is that the players are given tools and options to create their own fun. Exploration, experimentation, open possibilities and individualized play are emphasized. In an “amusement park” setting, the players decide which roller coaster appeals to them, then are pretty much just along for the ride. It might be an amazing ride, but they have limited control over the direction and pacing of the experience. Final Fantasy VII is a fairly good example of the amusement park esthetic. While you can go out exploring, nothing happens until you return to the main plotline.
I think a lot of gamers endorse sandboxing without really considering what it means. As a GM it is an exceptionally challenging type of game to run, perhaps the most challenging. Most of the time, when I’ve seen it be successful, it’s because the GM listens to the players and calls a brief timeout to put together an encounter. Obviously, this is much easier to do when using stock monsters and traps. As such, it can feel a little stifling to GMs like myself who enjoy creating custom monsters.
The upside to this as a development strategy is that it keeps the players empowered and engaged. The fun is theirs, not someone else’s. One of the complications of this style is that the players may not always have creative inspiration or energy. With a computer game this is less of a problem, as the player can just log off and return when they’re feeling it. Another concern is that even within small, tightly-knit groups, players may have different ideas about fun.
In the opposite direction, amusement park design can be exceptionally confining for the players. Anyone who has run up against the “dungeon under construction” cockblock can speak to this. (Note that this is distinct from the “one solution” fallacy*) Amusement park design is popular for a variety of reasons. For some GMs it provides the control that lets them manage a complex game. For others, it can be a powerful storytelling tool. A dungeon crawl is almost by definition an amusement park ride. The choice to enter may be up to the PCs, but once made, they’re generally stuck.
As with most of these topics, you’re going to have to find the sweet spot between your strengths as a GM and what the players want.
* – In the “one solution” fallacy, the GM gets it in his head that there’s only one way to achieve an objective and actively counters or dismisses alternate ideas. For example, if the PCs have warn the king that an assassination attempt is imminent, the PCs might decide to try and sneak a weak poison into the king’s food so that he becomes mildly ill and security is increased. “Amusement parking” this situation would be where this would avoid an encounter or plotline that the GM has planned. “One solution” would be where the GM dismisses it as unfeasible.