I recently read a review of Elder Scrolls Online, and the biggest complaint is that the player didn't feel like they were the center of the world, and in previous games that had been a major selling point. The reviewer stated that he felt okay with the idea that when he left a town that the inhabitants simply froze, waiting for his return.
That got me thinking about role-playing games and how we as the GM tend to build the world around our players. For example, what's it matter if the next town over is under attack, if our players never visit? When I run D&D I build my world as a series of points each of them existing as a chain as the party moves throughout the landscape. However, if the players journey off that road I'm left scrambling. Simply put, I didn't build a world, I built an adventure, and when that adventure went an unexpected direction I was left flat footed.
I've been guilty of the same behavior in Shadowrun. However in Shadowrun I feel it's almost inexcusable. I've talked a bit about the value of having a folio of people, and places, and the help that can come from having a standing cast but I want to touch on the idea that maybe the players aren't that important. I know, this seems radical but stay with me.
Let's envision a run, the team is hired by a rookie looking Mr. Johnson, new suit, ill-fitting, he pays too much out of the gate, and flubs the negotiation badly. The team is looking to make a lot of money for relatively little work. So far this sounds like a standard Shadowrun setup. Let's take a moment to step back. Why is the Johnson hiring the team? Why this specific group. Remember there are hundreds of Runners, of various levels of professionalism, and skill set. Why did he pick this group? What is going on in his background to make him need a Runner team in the first place?
Let's assume that Mr. Johnson is running a scam. He owns a business, and needs an out. He's going to hire the team, make sure they damage the business so he can walk away with the insurance, and to top it all off he's going to make sure he doesn't need to pay them. Why? Because he's Mr. Johnson. Still sounds fairly vanilla-Shadowrun.
A day or two after the meet Mr. Johnson gets nabbed. His insurance company got wind of the attempted fraud, and he's been picked up and is currently sitting in jail with no way to alert the team that the poorly planned insurance fraud scheme is not going to work. The world has taken an action outside of the context of the team, at this point there's no way they can get paid, but they don't know that. Maybe they go on the run, and finding no resistance, quickly accomplish the tasks set for them. Of course, they don't know that the reason they don't meet any resistance is because the building has been seized by the insurance company, and when they contact Mr. Johnson he's gone quiet.
This is one of the hardest things for a GM to work with. You have a group that's now most likely disappointed. They had a milk run, and now there's no money. Bills need paid, and there's no payday. However this is one of the reasons I absolutely love Shadowrun. The world, the real world, doesn't have to sit still and wait for the team to come along and give it meaning. Have a contact you really like? He bar tend? Well, now the bar's closed. What do you do now? Or, he's been shot. There was a row at the bar and he ended up on the wrong end of a shotgun blast.
I'm still playing with the concept, but I like the potential of having a living, breathing world, and the party is a tiny, tiny cog. I'm sure this will come up again, but in the meantime, if you've ever thought about the wider world in your games, or have interesting ways of keeping your party from feeling that the world revolves around them leave a comment!