As a young boy I used to draw maps of fictional lands, carefully placing the geography and developments so as to fit some piece of lore or economic needs of the civilization that was taking shape under my pen. I would imagine the adventures and lives of the people in the world I created, and wrote just as many stories to support these maps.
That experience helped tremendously when I became the DM of my AD&D group in the early-to-mid 90's, but I learned some hard lessons from my players: you HAVE to control the player. If you give a player a wide-open world to adventure around in, he'll do just that, and whatever story arc you may have laid out becomes a forgotten piece of advice from a bartender in...some town or another a while back.
I've been thinking about my DM days a lot here lately, having just taken the plunge into RPG-development land. RPGMaker VX Ace is my first attempt beyond some FPS maps at making anything resembling a computer game, and I find myself thinking less about my days with Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy I/II (US versions) than I do recalling the hard lessons of DMing a group of rowdy players who wanted nothing more than to put the sword (or dagger, or fireball) to the beast.
And so I've found myself in lands of my own making, with lore and characters whose beginnings reach all the way back to my elementary school days a few decades back. Unlike those days behind the DM screen, staring out across eager faces I knew so well, I have no idea who will take up the sword in this world of mine and explore whatever fantasy lands I manage to create. Warrior or mage? Male or female? Expert or nascent gamer?
Arder Island, the place that isn't that other place.
As I learn the subtleties of the program I find myself thinking less about HOW to do something, and more about whether or not I should. It easy to throw everything at the player at once, show him all you've got and make him think "wow, that's interesting."
It's something else entirely to make the player want to keep playing.
We've all had those games that, as much as we wanted to enjoy them, just didn't draw us in. They became a chore to finish, if we ever even finished them. They were a task to get out of the way rather than a work of fiction to be enjoyed from one cover to the other.
DMing for a group of friends had the advantage of immediate feedback. Are people starting to doze off and lose interest? An unsuspected attack or a magic spell gone wrong could always bring everyone back to their feet, ready to join the fray and fight over the booty. In between the die-rolling and stat-checking, I could be behind my screen tweaking and adjusting the overall arc to be a bit more lively from that point forward, the players never suspecting that I had dropped the ball.
So here I find myself, a DM to players unseen and known, and I have to keep them interested.
I have to control them in the sense that I need them to want to do the things I've laid out before them. This isn't a Bethesda game, you don't get to make your own story, you get to play mine. But, as with any good RPG, I want it to become your story, as well.
Ancient temples always mean a badass boss at the end, right?
It's not just about interesting locations and characters, lots of weapons and enemies to stick those weapons into, but rather its about anticipating what the player expects and wants. And, despite that, you can't just give it to them. One must, at times, defy the players expectations or desires. Show him what he wants and then take it away. Lead him on that chase, through temples and mines and towns and places he has no other business being in. Give it to him in pieces, and let him think that the ultimate goal is just out of reach.
That box of swag back there would be a nice start.
The truth is, the mechanics of gamemaking isn't taking up as much of my time as I thought it would. The lore, characters and locations have long existed in my mind. It's the player that's the dynamic variable that I've got to pin down and hold on to; the one thing that makes the world run is the one thing that's so easy to lose.
So as the player begins his journey on Arder Island and starts hearing tales of the mainland, I have to consider "how do I make him want to do whatever it takes to get off this island and explore the rest of the world without the island feeling like an obstacle in the path to greater freedom?"
And then, once on the mainland, that question will evolve again to "now that the player is here, how do I get him to want to go elsewhere, instead?"
I'm in the very beginnings of my ultimate DM campaign. Many months from now I hope to invite you all on an adventure I've lived many times in my own mind, but first, I have to make sure all the strings go to the right limbs and that if you look up, you can't see me.
Ignore the man behind the curtain; this means nothing.