Wednesday, January 4, 2012
West Marches - What if it's not Fantasy?
There are really two main components to a West Marches game:
1) Sandbox play - an open adventuring environment with no "plot complications" imposed by the DM
2) An open table - players are free to mix and match and come and go as their interest level and schedules permit
I want to focus on the sandbox element in this post, and look at genres and best fits. One of the common themes I've seen in reading about various sandbox games is that they tend to be some flavor of D&D and the ones that are not are some other flavor of fantasy game like RuneQuest. I assume that some of this is due to fantasy games being more popular but I think some of this is also a structural limitation inherent to certain types of campaign. So let's look at some of them.
Beyond the open environment a sandbox game generally requires a motivation for characters to go exploring - there has to be some payoff for doing so. D&D offers experience points, gold, and magic items, which are the whole reason you go dungeoneering anyway, so it's an obvious choice and our baseline. Any level-based game could start from a similar place by offering XP's for exploration -and possible combat and diplomacy as well. You wander around, you level up, and keep finding danger and interesting situations.
This is something you could create with Traveller (and is the main drive behind Stars Without Number) and really any game where you have an unexplored region and a group of characters that can ... explore it. Fantasy and Sci Fi both seem to work for it - besides the previous mentions I can see it working with Star Trek, Star Wars, Mechwarrior, Rogue Trader, and even Mekton. What's the reward? Well, XP's of course. The chance to use some of your big guns without some outside authority cracking down on you - "Imperial regulation 11539.17 outlaws the use of nuclear weapons on a planetary surface - you will now be vaporized". Meeting new races - "Borg? Like Cy-Borg?". Naming planets after your character - "Welcome to Sparacus Jonesworld". New technology - "They call it a Star-Trigger". Old technology - "They call it a lightsaber". F-r-e-e-d-o-m to roam as you please without being assigned missions from Star Fleet Command every week. You can usually find a good reason for any player and character.
Post-Apocalyptic games work too - Gamma World, Twilight 2000, and Darwin's World all lend themselves to it, for mostly the same reasons.
One genre I am not sure about is Westerns. The core of the Sandbox game is the blank map - typical cowboy games have much of the map filled in already, so I'm not sure they would work. I suppose you could try using "Fort Safehaven" as the base and have the party out exploring Indian Territorry as the game, but it feels more forced to me. You generally do not have aerial travel though, which at least keeps it viable and leads me into a related genre.
Steampunk is another type of game I wonder about - you still can have some unmapped areas of the world like a fantastic Africa or a hollow world, but once you get into aerial travel then you lose another core element of sandbox gaming: the danger of the hexcrawl. In a sci-fi game you may travel by spaceship, but the assumption is that dangerous things may exist in that same space that your ship travels through. In a conventional planet-bound game aerial travel avoids much of this danger, at least enough to change the flavor of the exercise, and a steampunk game invariably has some kind of aerial travel available. Allowing players to sidestep much of the danger just kills this kind of game in my opinion, as the focus shifts from exploration of the area to hitting the high points and determining the optimum sites to loot. Going into a game like this with the intention of haivng the players fly around for most of it could be a fun chalenge to undertake and a refreshing change of pace, but I think I need to level up my dusty sandboxing skills before I would want to try it. There is also the issue of rewards. Unless you have some kind of magic/psychic/powers and artifacts to go with them then you're back to loot and XP's - which may work just fine for some groups.
One campaign concept I had years ago might get around some of these issues. My pitch was "Cowboys on Mars" which was to be a hopefully entertaining fusion of Deadlands and Space 1889 using at one point GURPS, and then at another point Savage Worlds. In short it was going to have steampunk tech, cowboys, and funky powers, all set in the 1880s. Space 1889 does have fairly common methods of air travel, especially on Mars, which lessens the usual travel dangers but a) the natives and the rivals have air travel and powers too, upping the danger almost back to where it should be and b) It's a whole frigging planet! I originally had some plotted stuff to kick it off but figured a large part of it would be a sandbox type exploration for loot and knowledge and possibly power - "Shotgun" Slim Durango, usurper-king of the tribes of the northern dust-plains - that kind of thing.
Horror is my final "maybe" genre. I generally see it as something that gets layered over another- fantasy, modern, sci -fi - rather than a separate genre of its own, but you could set a game in an earlier time and make expeditions ito the wild neccessary for survival and not looked-forward to - gathering food, perhaps - rather than a voluntarily loot-seeking activity. Players might know that "going outside" means strange visions, strange creatures, shared dreams - or any or all of the above. Maybe it's a colony world on a distant planet. Maybe it's a base near the Eye of Terror. Maybe it's something like Dark City or maybe the characters are normal survivors caught up in something like the battleworld form Secret Wars and left behind and forgotten after the big fight. It's workable, but I think there are better choices for a true ongoing sandbox game.
There are really only two genres that I think have real problems with a sandbox campaign:
Cyberpunk is typically a high-knowledge setting so you're not likely to have unexplored territorry or unmapped regions. They also tend to be centered in a particular city, dropping travel distances down to hours at most. You could try to rig up some kind of hexcrawl through a city but your tech player is likely to just pull down a satelite map and auto-nav to where they need to go - and they should! It's part of the genre! "Exploring unknown territorry" doesn't really come up a lot unless you mean in the virtual sense or the limits of humanity sense. Why not set it on a new space colony? Because you're still going to have orbital satellites and air travel and remote operated drones and a bunch of other ways to kill the mystery and sense of exploring the unknown. When the tropes of cyberpunk don't support it and most of the settings and systems don't support it, I don't think it's worth pursuing when there are so many better options out there.
Supers is the other type of game that just fails as a sandbox. One, they're usually set in the modern day so you don't have much unexplored territorry to work with. Two, supers go way past aerial travel and get into weirdness like teleportation and time travel making the dangerous travel element a non-factor. Three, supers is an inherently reactive genre - they take action when a badguy starts something, so at its core it's a plotted type of game and there's nothing wrong with that - it just makes hex-crawling an unlikely activity for superheroes. You could strand them on an alien planet and take away their powers but at that point you're pretty much playing D&D or GURPS anyway, and it's probably a side-trek, not the focus of the campaign. Plus what's the payoff? These characters generally aren't looking for loot or magic items - they're looking to fight the good fight! One final consideration is that the mechanical systems that usually go along with supers tend to have them wired in to an existing society - Dpenedent NPC's, Group Affiliations, Enemies, Rivals, Day Jobs - all of these mean that it's difficult to separate the hero from the typical environment.
So what would I run? I have to admit I'm kind of intrigued by the idea of an open-table-everyone-is-a-captain Star Trek sandbox. I'm not sure I could ever get 10 people to play it, but I do like the idea. Second choice would probably be a PA game using some version of Gamma World, just because that's always been a thing for me. We'll see how it all shakes out.