The Grand Theft Auto School of Campaign Design

When the mainstream sees Grand Theft Auto, they see mindless violence, rampant mayhem, and destruction without purpose. When gamers look at it though, they see something different: freedom to explore.

Unlike many other games (at least until the release of Grand Theft Auto 3), the mission agenda in the game is not hard coded. Players can choose to follow the main story arc, but if they become frustrated with it or simply want something different, they can try out one of several “short story” arcs. Those sick of storytelling entirely can turn to mini-missions and challenges scattered through the game, such as street races, killer rampages, hitman missions, or even radio-controlled mini-car/plane challenges. They could hijack a cab and ferry customers around the city, steal a police car and go vigilante, snag an ambulance and rush victims to the hospital, or carjack a fire truck and battle infernos.

Ignoring anything even remotely resembling a mission, they can go on a treasure hunt of sorts, looking for hidden tokens scattered around the city; collecting tokens unlocked special weapons and items or hunt down the various unique car jumps scattered throughout the city. And when even this became tiresome, they could simply drive around the city, exploring its back allies and hidden corners.

It was this high degree of freedom that was what made the game so intoxicating to play. Sure, some were undoubtedly attracted to the violence as well, but violent video games have been done before. The ability to go anywhere, and do anything, is what was so new.

The Illusion of Freedom

And yet, Rockstar’s masterstroke was not this degree of freedom … but rather the illusion of freedom. Because when you get right down to it, while Grand Theft Auto lets you do a lot, there’s still plenty you can’t do.

In GTA 3 and GTA: Vice City, there was still a primary storyline that — while you could ignore it — remained extremely linear. Hell, that storyline didn’t even branch at all — things progressed entirely as the designers wrote it.

  • You can’t kill off the primary characters. Even when you might like to, the NPCs live protected lives. So in Vice City, there’s no way to off your sidekick, even if you suspect — hell, even if you know — that he’s going to betray you in the end.
  • You can’t swim. ‘Nuff said.
  • You can’t leave the city.

Now some of these issues are addressed in GTA: San Andreas (the latest chapter) which unfolds over an entire state, and incorporates 3 cities. But from what I’ve read, it’s more of the same, plot-wise — there will be a story you can choose to ignore, but it will unfold as the designers planned, and you will have no control over how it’s resolved.

And you won’t care. Because Rockstar has managed to create a game that feels so wide open, feels so packed with possibilities, that as players we happily ignore the fact that we can’t cap all the NPCs from the word go.

Greyhawk, Wiseguy-Style

With my just-started city-based Obsidian Bay campaign called Dark City, I want to create a Grand Theft Auto-style campaign focused on player-driven objectives. As with GTA, I want our base city of Obsidian Bay to be crawling with missions and tasks just waiting to be executed by players. If done right, then when my players arrive in their stereotypical tavern, and ask for their inevitable question of “what are we doing tonight?” I will respond “I don’t know … what are you doing tonight?”

Now I’m not looking to recreate Grand Theft Auto’s violent tendencies in the this campaign; I don’t want players performing hits on recalcitrant shop owners in the Strange Quarter or cutting down passersby in the Wharf District. What I do want is for the players to be able to turn around and seek their own fortune. Maybe one will use a Gather Information check to see what the news is on the street, while another Performs in the tavern’s main room in an effort to pay for his rent. Maybe still another decides to go looking for a game of darts … or a fight. Maybe they’ll just go wander the city, and an adventure will find them.

The point though, is that I don’t want there to be there to be the cliched (yet still useful) man in a dark cloak sitting in the corner, drinking red wine and biding his time for the party to finish their introductions so that he can approach them. There will be a storyline of course, and players will find it eventually, but I don’t want to ram it down my players throats.

The question though, is how to do all this? It’s all well and good to say that you want players to have freedom of action within the campaign, but when you’ve got a half-dozen odd players, this can be problematic, particularly when they each go charging off in their own direction. After all one of the cries most often heard at our gaming table (and I suspect others as well) is “Don’t Split Up The Party!”

I’ve come up with a couple of ways of handling this.

Talk to the Players: I let the players know exactly what kind of campaign I hoped to run, and to explained that each of them wouuld get a chance — in-game — to pursue their own agendas. I then allocated small blocks of time — perhaps 15 minutes a piece — to each player in turn.

Build in Dedicated Time: I can set aside time before the game for some “pre-gaming”, allowing interested players to conduct one-on-one sessions in which their characters get to pursue their own agendas, but without impacting on the party’s larger play time. I haven’t tried this yet, but the campaign is still young.

Detail the City: Obsidian Bay has always existed as a sort of detailed sketch in our campaign. It was a base of operations, and while most of the major aspects of the city were known to players, the specifics were often left blank. That isn’t a bad thing — a city with large, open areas in its structure leaves plenty of wiggle room for players and DMs alike. Yet in an urban-based campaign, I think the city has to be brought into tighter focus — I need to know the names of streets, where the businesses are, and what the response times are for the guards. I need to know about taxes, codes and all the other intricate details of city life that make the metropolis breathe.

Post the Map: During the ramp-up for the game, one of my players created a map of Obsidian Bay based on my sketches. I printed out the map, and hung it on the wall. I did it to provide players with a point of reference, but I didn’t realize how much they’d enjoy having it. Now, as we game, players consult the map, looking for locations they haven’t seen before or add in new entries for organizations or businesses that we’ve created on the fly.

Scatter the Subplots: I’ve created about a dozen subplots for the “Dark City” campaign in the form of organizations, gangs, and events that the players can (and will) run into. I plan on creating at least twice this amount. The idea is to have a constant fount of stories that I can fall back on. These aren’t extensive — for the most part, I’m just creating a summary and a few important NPCs, and then winging the rest.

Play it Fast and Loose: When I run Dark City, I don’t come to the table with too many expectations. Now my regular D&D sessions are usually fairly open ended — I let me players roam pretty far and wide — but there’s usually at least a plot around there somewhere. With Dark City though, I try not to impose too much of my expectations on the game — instead, I focus on what the players want to do, and then throw something together on the fly to accommodate them.

Use the Players: Sometimes I throw the problem back at the players. For example, one of the players wanted to find an arcane forge in Obsidian Bay. That’s something I never detailed, so I threw it out to the party, and in 15 minutes we’d created “Fires of Brass”, a magical foundry run by an old Baklunish mage.

Randomize it: And when all else fails, there’s always the good ‘ol random encounter charts. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes a sample urban encounter chart, and I plan on using it for the party’s initial forays into the city. I do, however, want to create custom charts for each region of the city.

So far, it’s going well. We’ve run two Dark City sessions, and they’ve been role-playing intensive affairs. In about 9 hours of game time, we’ve had one combat, and that was over in about 30 minutes. Players have enjoyed the round-robin style of play I’m using, and have probably had as much fun watching their fellows play as actually playing themselves. After two sessions, most of the party has linked up into one group, and they’re about to embark on a quest to hunt down some murderous gang member. That’ll mean more combat, and less role-playing (as well as more linear game play) but I expect we’ll return to free-form gaming once they’ve dealt with that particular menace.

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