A meditation on personal gaming preference/philosophy.
This is not the One True Way, but it is my own personal One True Way.
I could play a computer game set in a big damn world...one of the Elder Scrolls games, maybe, or Arcanum. (Which has a huge but mostly empty world) No matter how big the game world is, there is always a space limit. There is always a border beyond which there is no more rendered world, and therefore your character can go no further. (Unless they bust out some DLC, that is....)
No matter how clever my idea is, I can't implement it unless it has been coded into the game as a possible solution to the dilemma at hand. You have to get the Gypsy Shadow to find the Island of Thanatos, even after you've befriended two kings and a powerful industrialist, any of whom should be glad to loan you a boat for one measly trip. You can't take the Shadow by force. You can't steal it in the dead of night. You can't steal some other ship.
In Morrowind, I was once told that only "someone important" (i.e., someone who completed the coded quest) could get in to see some leader guy. My character, at that point in the game, was the Grand Master of the Fighter's Guild. Like, the only Fighter's Guild in the area where the game took place. I had no option to mention this to the guy guarding the door.
Here's where roleplaying games are awesome.
You can always cross that next mountain range. You can try to steal a ship. You can be like "Bitch, I'm the Grand Masterist Fighter on this entire island!" You could bring a badass retinue of Guild warriors with you.
Yeah, it might not work...but you can at least try.
...in theory. This is where roleplaying games are supposed to shine. But...
In the past, I played a RIFTS game where we kept hearing rumors about the war between the Coalition States and Tolkeen. (for the uninitiated, that's Nazi Germany With A Skull Fetish vs. Magical Kingdom of Wizards) Our party wanted no part of this conflict and decided to move on to greener (less nuked) pastures. Of course, no matter what direction we headed, we always seemed to arrive on the front line of the war... even when we traveled in the exact opposite direction of the last time we ended up on the front line of the war. It should be noted that each front line looked an awful lot like every other front line, down to the same battle happening in much the same way.
Once, I played a D&D 3.0 game where we beat some pirates and found a ship. We were told the ship was too big to sail out of the cave we found it in. When we pointed out that this would have made the pirate raids we were trying to stop impossible, we were allowed to take the ship....but we had no crew. We tried to hire a crew, but there were no sailors to be found (in a city that was described as the biggest port city on the continent.) We waited a month. Not one single solitary sailor was looking for work. We also could not find a single naval map to save our souls.
There was this one time, at band camp (by which I mean Shadowrun 3rd edition) where we were told that an NPC was "too beautiful" to shoot (Charisma 8 elf in tight leather suit inspired by Trinity from The Matrix) because her continued survival was essential to the GM's multi-chapter storyline.
I should mention that she was too beautiful to shoot, after blatantly screwing us over and nearly killing one of our team.
And she was running away.
And it was night.
And one guy was playing a character who had a noted hatred of elves.
We were not even permitted an attack roll with an outrageous penalty or something.
This is where the theoretically infinite medium of the roleplaying game can come to a screeching halt, as surely as when you hit the invisible wall that keeps you from going any farther in a computer game, as surely as that rickety-ass locked door is stopping a party that includes a guy with a seven foot long sword and the ability to summon a dragon (who can shoot an earth-annihilating laser. FFVII, anyone?) Why? Because only the right key can unlock that rickety-ass door. (They didn't even make it look like it was made out of thick metal or Super Unbelievium or a glowing force field...)
Computer games have the excuse of being a medium with finite programming space.
GMs have no such excuse.
Perhaps I'm being a little harsh. Some people aren't good at winging it. Some people prefer pre-decided narratives in their games. Hell, my games used to have plots years ago.
These days, though... I need to see what's over that next mountain, and I need you to let me.
I want to try crazy ass plans and I want them to have a chance to succeed if they should have a chance to succeed,and not be arbitrarily shut down because they go off some invisible rails.
I, as a GM, will not take the dungeon or lost scroll or other thing you walk by or are uninterested in and just stick it in the next dungeon entrance or treasure chest. To do so is to give you only the illusion that your decisions matter. In Mass Effect 1, it seems like there are dozens and dozens of side missions, but really you're just exploring the same five planets and three buildings with a different paint job. Yeah, this time the building is a research facility that went dark, this time it's a slaver's den, this time it's a warehouse, but it has the same floor plan... and the guys guarding it are pretty much the same whether they are called Thugs or Mercenaries or Pirates.
Conversely, I as a player will only happily buy into this illusion as long as it doesn't become glaringly obvious that we were going to go through this dungeon or find this item no matter what. If you can keep it hidden that you just re-skinned your nanite-infected scientists as pre-sentient cannibal apes, I will be just fine.
Narratives in games can be cool, but to me, the Most Awesomest feature of the pen-and-paper rpg is this limitless potential, and if we're just going to run on rails with pre-set solutions, I might as well be playing Final Fantasy or something.
(I like those kinds of games, by the way- maybe not as much as I used to- but they don't hold a candle to the enjoyment I get out of tabletop gaming)