I was watching a video from GDC where the speaker was using Disneyland as an example for video game design, about how everything was used to tell a story, from the macro world design of entering the park to the medium level design of the various themed lands and then to the experience of being on the attractions the micro specific moment or scene that they are experiencing. This was being done for video games, but I figure we can use it for roleplaying games too.
In a video game, you power the game up and enter the world, usually through a narrative cut-scene to set the story for you and then after the story settles and you begin your level, you will usually see how things are crafted for the story they want to tell, the experience they want you to have and tailored almost like one tells a movie with specific choices of camera placements, pre-designed events staged in a certain pattern for you to encounter and so forth.
When designing it for a tabletop RPG the players have freedom to go wherever they want and the GM is the one that gets them there. So, in a sandbox environment, you would start the players on the small scale events and give them larger ones to build onto, things they would see coming as they progress and can plan for, like a theme park goer who walks into the park will make plans for the Roller coaster and then the flume ride and then onto another smaller adventure in this big sandbox to play in.
There are two ways.people will talk about designing game worlds, be it sandbox or not and that is inside out or outside in. Both design approaches have merit, but for Disneyland they went Outside in, focusing on the theme park first then to the different lands then to the attractions in the lands and then even down to the specific minute to minute experience the park goes had.. Using this world to land to attraction to experience is comparable to looking at your game in a world to level to experience viewpoint. You build the map, then you populate it with encounters for the player to take part in then you build their minute by minute adventure as you lead them through it. Extra Credits did a good talk about sandbox design here and goes into some ideas of how to incorporate things.
When designing a sandbox, a good writer will try and bring in some foreshadowing giving ideas of some things that might be previously encountered. like the posters in Bioshock giving an idea of how the plasmids will power you up, but some of it can be done in simpler ways like the Half Life 1 Tram Ride showing off different bits of the area. This may seem harder to do in a roleplaying scenario, but you can put a little focus on various points like if you plan to have part of your story take place in or on a volcano you could make mention to a ritual being done where some animals or treasure are sacrificed to appease the gods or in re-enactment of some great battle taking place there. If you want a specific landmass to be important find a way to emphasis it, perhaps something as obvious as “Everything the light touches” moment from the Lion King or as subtle as a mention about having there be a patrol going out to the area and later in the game make mention they were not heard from.
Walt Disney did invent the idea of Weenies, which are called Weenies after the idea of leading a dog from point to point by holding out a hot dog wiener for them. In Disneyland the rides, the castle and many other things are these weenies, as they are points of reference drawing you to them and helping you find your bearings by them. Think of it like the cartography in Miasmata where you actually need to take triangulation to figure out location of landmarks and to complete your map. Makes the game seem like that much more of a grand adventure to me. Might be harder to do in a game, but you can give your players a description of it and if you really want to be evil, have them have to figure out where they are going if they have no map and get lost.
One big thing you’ll realize in Disneyland is that not everything needs to be an E-Ticket high attraction exhibit, sometimes you need a moment to break and rest. Using the idea of Interest Curves, as discussed here at Extra Ctedits, you see that by letting things build and fall you let your audience relax after having things built high.or you won’t be giving them a proper feel for your work. In other words, give your players a little quiet time before throwing events at them. Now,feel free to have one thing be a major drama high time thing with a countdown timer as they try and solve something but then give them some time in and out of game to relax and get back to a baseline.
Be sure to reward your players with something at every encounter they take.It doesn’t have to be a statistical bonus, it could just be an event that furthers their understanding of the world like stumbling on a treasure and then a pirate demanding you give them back their treasure, or perhaps a stone carving of native artwork explaining some of the history. By putting specific key points that the player will encounter without being able to see that it is a plant is economic storytelling, you are putting something in place to tell a story and then another piece in a second area, such as running into a key character before a battle in a fortress and then after the battle meeting with them again and all it is is just placing these two encounters and not having to measure what happened to the character during the battle since the players never got to see it.
To see the sort of ideas in work, the film talks about the Indy queue for waiting for the event. There is lots of foreshadowing — snake imagery telling you what danger you’ll encounter later, which makes your mind wonder what the danger will be, creates anticipation. Anyone who watches horror will know that expectation enhances surprise as you are waiting for things to happen so you are on edge. Once inside the queue, all kinds of minigames, puzzles and storytelling to keep the players interested as they are waiting. The examples they use are hieroglyphs and coded messages, but you can do anything with it. These puzzles aren’t gating devices, they’re story elements. Also, since the idea is not to directly endanger the ride-goer, Disney has tons of implied threats, skulls, easter eggs and interactivity like yank-rope with a collapsing ceiling, great to show players possible danger and keep them on edge without directly challenging them.
Some idle points to help in designing areas in general based on the details given in this video. First, a good juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces to keep things changing and giving players some differences. As well, narrow areas have danger, wide areas are for exploration. There are also some great game design tricks for getting players to choose certain areas and paths that you can use to help in your roleplaying, my favorite descriptions of them coming from Leverage and Youtube channels Extra Credits and Game Maker’s Toolkit.Some of these are visual tricks, sure, but you can come up with similar tricks for verbal storytelling.