Thursday, January 5, 2012
West Marches - Opening the Table for Different Games
The other core element of a West Marches game (see yesterday's post for the first one) is the Open Table - the idea is to not have a set time to play and to not have a set group of players. Instead, players can get a group together and schedule something anytime they and the DM are available.
One consideration: It seems like online play would make this even easier to schedule by a) eliminating travel complications and time and b) opening up the pool of players beyond the local area, but I haven't done enough of that to want to try and run a game like that just yet.
Fantasy is again the go-to option here because one of the concerns is having a large pool of available players. It doesn't get any larger than the D&D crowd and fantasy games in general. Structurally it works well because you can have an "expedition" that consists of a few guys walking around or riding horses together. Then once they get "back to town" there are no further constraints on the group to remain a group.
Sci-Fi - probably the next biggest pool but traditional sci-fi games usually involve a ship, and typical sandboxing involves going to different planets. There is no good way to manage Player A on Ship A and Player B on Ship B unless you assume we have a bunch of one-man ships (not very satisfying IMO) or we all go back to base every time or everyone is a captain and can decide where they want to go. I kind of like that last idea, especially in a Star Trek type environment, but there are other issues there. You might say that if the knights and wizards can go back to town every session then why can't the ship go back to base every session? Well, part of the attraction of sci-fi is the ship, and one of the things ships do is break down or get damaged. If you get into a fight and the hyperdrive gets taken out, well, you're stranded somewhere until it gets fixed, and so is your character. I'm not saying this is insurmountable but it works against the structure of this type of game. I'm thnking that maybe you could manage it with a "call in the dreadnought" rule to bail you out from an untenable situation (it's a big pure-combat ship that is expensive to operate and useless for exploration so it sits at the starbase until someone needs help, either through gratuitous use of photon torpedoes or a helpful tow) but there would have to be some consequences to doing so - maybe you get a reprimand or after 3 calls you get demoted to a smaller ship - something that doesn't take you out of the action but isn't anything anybody wants to have publicizied. The characters on different ships problem is just an additional obstacle that fantasy doesn't have - it doesn't mean it's not worth trying however.
PostApocalyptic - this is pretty close to fantasy. Most travel is by foot or at least on the ground, and the players could be leaving from a fortified city, a hidden underground base, a beached aircraft carrier - there are lots of ways to have a secure "town" to go back to, and all of the positive reasons for playing it in fantasy work here too.
Western - same thing here. If you can come up with a good concept then having everyone operate out of Fort Somewhere at the end of a new rail line works just fine. You're on foot or horseback for the most part so it ends up working a lot like fantasy. It does make the inclusion of some Native American character types a little tricky but I think it still works.
Steampunk - you might run into the ship issue from above if you have a bunch of people exploring by balloon or dirigible of some kind. Otherwise I don't see a lot of structural issues here.
So as long as the setting sets an expectation that the characters will be individuals on foot or mounted or driving a ground vehicle of some type then we're OK with players coming and going. Even there I can see travel becoming an issue if mounts or cars are damaged or destroyed, but at least then it's still physically possible to return home - it's just a question of time. When a method of transport becomes the only means of returning to the home base AND is a destuctable thing, then we have a problem because it potentially locks in a group of characters when the players may not be able to reassemble. One solution to this is my "everyone-is-a-captain" concept where if 4 or 5 ships are out exploring a system together it mitigates the chance that the party will be stranded - surely someone can beam over survivors and then warp out - right?
The biggest problem I foresee (and it's not genre-specific) is that the players must be free to group and ungroup at will and choose their own destiny. If the characters are part of a military, government, or corporate organization then this could be a problem, whether it's Star Fleet, House Kurita, or the U.S. 7th Cavalry. I can see ways to work around it in some settings, less so in others. In a Western or Steampunk game the characters might be outside experts, freelancers, or on detached duty. For a Trek game the concept could be that in the newly opened Zeta Quadrant the players are all ship captains and their experienced command staff can decide how to investigate this vast new frontier and follow up leads as they please, rather than being micro-managed by a remote command structure. Post-Apoc games avoid most of this, as do fantasy games, so it's not likely to come up there but it's something to think about regardless.
I think a mechanical solution to potential bog-downs has to be in place, even if it's as simple as Jeff R's escape from the dungeon table. An ironclad rule that forbids session spillover prevents a lot of headaches for this kind of game. Plus the potential severity of the results provides additional incentive to get back to town in a timely fashion. I think I would probably take a hard line on this - even if the entire party (and the DM) agree that they could gather again the very next day to pick up where they left off, I would still lean towards closing it out and starting fresh the next day. Kids get sick, cars break down, wives get cranky, and hey, what if someone else wants to join in?
It's interesting that this is probably the less-common of the two elements, yet it seems to have fewer potential complications. As long as you have a means of scheduling things, I don't think the kind of game matters a great deal. Once you've decided to sandbox things, adding this in really doesn't change much in-game other than the return-to-base rule.
Idle Thought #1: Of course, you could just play fighter pilots/mechajocks/space marines/jedi stationed on board the Heart of Gold. Since it simultaneously passes through every point in the universe you could all deploy to anywhere and everywhere for each mission, the rejoin on the next jump. "OK this request indicates that a Space Wolf team accompanied by Darth Greedo and Sir Guinness of the Round Table is making an orbital drop onto Greyhawk looking for Leman Russ, who may in fact be the divine being known as "Kord" on that world. Alright let's roll to see where you land..."
Idle Thought #2: If you want a stationary home base I think the home planet of the Timelords from Dr. Who might do it. All characters must fit into a League of Extraordinary Gentleman type theme but with time period no longer an issue. Heck, universe might not be an issue. Run that as the Ultimate Sandbox! No hexmap - you can go anywhere, anywhen, with anyone. Maybe rule out straight-up superheroes -that's a little too obvious - but anything else. Of course then you get into system questions and that could be tricky, but it's fun to entertain the notion. "This session it looks like we have Colonel Steve Austin, Colonel Mustard, Colonel Sanders, and Colonel Sherman Potter and we're headed for the ice planet of Hoth..." Typically this kind of campaign would be driven by DM plots (Save the Chronoverse!) but this would be the anti-campaign to that - "Nope, the Gallifreyans have no mission for you, just some accomodations and a Universal Gateway." I think for sanity's sake I would want a week or two's notice and a description of where the group wants to go, but even with that it would be a tremendous test of improv skills. Pretty sure I could work up a theme song though: "We're the time guardians who don't do anything..."