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What Westworld Teaches Us About Running Tabletop RPGs

What Westworld Teaches Us About Running Tabletop RPGs

Only a couple episodes in and HBO’s Westworld is already giving us all sorts of chills. Beyond the deep themes relating to the humanity and rights of AI, the show has a lot to say about playing a role in a fantasy world.

Those of us who do worldbuilding and roleplaying should take note. Here are a few of the major lessons.

Storylines should be both planned and open-ended

As a world builder, make sure that your plots are well-developed, but not overly reliant on a specific set of player choices going the way you think they will. In Westworld, the host characters have stories that will occur and play out in their own way, sparked into interesting directions by interactions with the guests. The guests get to be heroes and villains, filling needed roles in the narratives.

There are clearly recurring moments which invite guests to get involved in the lives of the hosts. As a GM, we should craft these kinds of opportunities every time we invent an NPC. These special moments serve as invitations to greater moments in the story.

Thinking in these terms, we can learn to be flexible by giving each NPC a set of motivations that have consequences, but we don’t necessarily need to stick to those outcomes. The bandits may be planning to rob the saloon, but that doesn’t mean a PC won’t shoot them dead in the middle of it. A young gun might be ready to take up a life of crime, but an important dialogue with a player character might turn her around. Give your characters a chance to breathe before you kill them.

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It’s all about the little details

As Anthony Hopkins’ character says, “The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do; the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties; the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had noticed before. Something they’ve fallen in love with.” This is an important principle, often lost in the struggle to simply put together a functioning session of the game. Detailed interactions and descriptions, relying on careful thought about the motivations and situations of the setting, are what separate the good adventures from the great.

What if the players stormed the cave, killed the dragon, and raided its hoard? What did the dragon have to say before the battle? Why was it there? Who’s lives will be changed by its passing? Make sure to make these moments last by making them meaningful with details. Your group will want to poke around and find things that are important to them. Make sure that you can give them the right details when they start looking for them.

Even someplace small can be big

This is a simple lesson, but an important one. So many of the plotlines and interesting characters seem to originate in the small town that the visitors are dropped off at. Even an epic world-shattering storyline can revolve around a single town and the area around it. While it can be a blast for a world builder to literally build a world, the likelihood that your players have the interest as well as the time it takes to fully appreciate your design genius is slim.

Give them a slice of your world big enough to fit the size of the plots you plan to run. Take that sliver and embellish it, making it truly real. You’ll run vastly more interesting games if the details are vivid and well thought out. A small play area helps you get that done.

Without a past, player characters are engines of chaos.

Much of the debauchery and useless murder in Westworld revolves around guests coming in and just doing as they please to blow off steam. We’ve all seen this at the table and it’s annoyingly juvenile. The remedy is coming to the game with a past and strong connections to others.

Players should be encouraged to tie their characters to major figures in the setting. They should know where they came from and why they’re there. Without motivation and concerns for the locals, players can easily fall into the trap of finding enjoyment through sheer thrills. While this can be fun once in a while, good story is only told when personal stakes are on the line, not just XP and gold.

Be sure to utilize the tools given by the game itself. For instance, in D&D, the elements of Background can be used for this. Grab onto these tools embellish upon them to suit the setting.

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Sometimes players make up their own game

The “man in black” in Westworld seems to be self-inventing his own experience at the park. Some players are just like this, defying the conventions of the game we put before them. They’re worth entertaining just as much as the next player, so it’s important to stay flexible and learn to adapt the game to the needs of the players. Don’t scorn their unusual take on the game. An interested player is an asset, not a liability. Work with them to include other players in their motivations.

What have you learned from watching Westworld? Let’s compare campaign notes below in the comment section.

Image Credits: Home Box Office

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