Doors, Walls, Windows

In role-playing games, the GM describes challenges and offers opportunities. The players then make decisions for how their characters react to these things. You can think of this process as navigating a maze made of doors, walls, and windows.

Doors

A door is an opportunity to move forward in the story. It might be possible to peek through the door to see where it’ll lead you, but you’ll never know for sure unless you commit to it. Examples of doors in gaming include:

  • There’s a group of strange travelers on the road with you. They don’t see you yet. You can talk to them, or hide from them, or ignore them.
  • The magic artifact might solve your current dilemma, but comes with a mysterious curse or dire warnings.
  • You need to make a deal with the leaders of an enemy army. The enemy general has always kept his word, but can he (or his shifty second-in-command) really be trusted?
  • Using a riverboat will get you to your destination faster, but there’s been storms and flooding lately. The road might be safer, but will definitely be slower.

Doors are a choice you make. When facing multiple doors, you can only go through one. In the riverboat example, you will commit to only one mode of travel, not constantly swap between water and land travel.

Doors often “lock” behind you as well. Once you finish moving through the door, you can’t go back. For example, parachuting into a secure area is a one-way trip. Attempting diplomacy with the strange travelers might succeed or fail, but you’re no longer able to avoid detection by them.

Doors can be misused. Conceptually, a room full of nothing but doors everywhere leads to choice paralysis. If the players can’t “peek through” a door to guess the consequences of their choice, and there’s too many choices, they’ll pick randomly and the dramatic value of the choice is lost.

Walls

A wall is something that’s immobile and immutable. Examples of walls in gaming include:

  • There are guards on patrol. There’s too many to fight as a group. A few might be ambushed if you’re careful. You can also avoid them entirely.
  • The alarm will go off if you go through the main door. You must sneak in some other way.
  • The demon can’t move through the magic circle. It can bargain, coerce, intimidate, or otherwise try to influence you.

Walls divert you from moving forward along your current course. If you don’t mess with the wall, it won’t mess with you. In one example earlier, once you get past the area with the guards, they won’t follow you into a new area - they’re done with as a challenge.

Walls can be misused. Conceptually, a hallway made of nothing but walls on either side - where the only option to move forward on a single course - is more commonly called “railroading”. Similarly, narrating your way into a dead-end, a story direction with nothing but walls on every side, leaves players stymied and frustrated.

windows

A window is something that gives you information but no progress. Examples of windows in gaming include:

  • Scrying spells, telescopes, or other information-gathering tools.
  • A wise old sage or well-informed CIA officer who will brief you on a mission.
  • A bard, library, or other source of interesting tales about your subject.

Windows give you information about the road ahead. They can highlight the walls and doors you’ll encounter. In the example earlier, you might use a telescope to suss out a group of strange travelers, checking them for weapons ahead of time.

Windows can be misused. Too much information can distract players from moving the story forward. Too little means players can make poor decisions. Too many windows, and not enough doors, can make the players feel like they’re being told a story rather than helping to shaping one.