Open-Ended Game Play

My wife bought me a cracking game this Christmas! We played it today and managed to just about win, with just one action to spare before the ship’s self-destruct ended our crew’s lives.

Alien: Fate of The Nostromo is a great board game with a truck load of replayability. It also, being a board game, reminded me pretty sharply about all the big reasons I love roleplaying games.

Don’t misunderstand: Alien is a good game and I will play it many more times. I am delighted my wife bought it for me. Roleplaying games offer something different.

RPGs are, at their core, open-ended gaming experiences. In other words, while my turn on the board in Alien offers many tactical choices, those choices are strictly defined by the rules-as-written and there are only so many variations allowed. An RPG would be different because I could choose any imaginable action with my character.

When playing the Alien board game, my wife chose to play Lambert and I selected Ripley, and we both gained a small range of strictly defined characteristics that bounded our choices within that game. For example, Ripley can take 4 “actions” on her turn and then the player draws an Event card. The allowable actions are limited to the list in the rulebook.

While this is obvious to anyone who has played an RPG for more than about 4 hours, the core appeal of the roleplaying game is to play your character within the imaginary world. In so doing, you are not supposed to be limited by a given list of actions found in the rulebook (or listed on the character sheet). Thus, while in the Alien board game, my character was limited to moving through the corridors and rooms of the Nostromo, as a roleplayer I might choose to (say) crawl into the access vents.

The key difference is that the board game corrals the player’s choices into a limited range of actions to create a challenging sequence of events. The effect is very positive and, in this case, enjoyable precisely because of the limitations present in the rules. But I was not playing Ripley on the Nostromo. I was moving a pawn of Ripley around the map of the Nostromo within the rules of the game.

For me, the RPG version of Alien needs to allow me to inhabit Ripley as a character and make decisions in-role, within that situation, bounded by the imagined limitations of the world the Nostromo inhabits. Certainly we would have some written-down rules to help the GM adjudicate the decisions Ripley makes. That said, as a player, I am welcome to attempt any action I can imagine within the context of the situation.

More that that, should Ripley survive the Nostromo and (say) we abandon ship in the Narcissus, the nature of the roleplaying game is that it is open-ended in a second sense: we can continue the decision-making in-character and discover what happens when Ripley wakes up.

It’s this layered open-endedness that appeals so strongly to me as a gamer. I can make whatever choices I believe Ripley would make and I can keep making those choices until Ripley dies or I decide to stop.

Weirdly, there is no replayability with an RPG, as such. As with life, we can only play that one character in that one situation just this one time. If we replay the scene, even with the same players and characters, the mystery and challenge will be gone. For me, it’s this unique sequence of discoveries played in-role and in-world that make RPGs so fascinating. It truly is an open-ended experience.

Game on!

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