Friday, January 6, 2012

Organizing an Open Table: West Marches vs. Megadungeon


As I investigate this further I came back across some of the megadungeon articles I have found on other sites and the discussion therin (Best are on the Alexandrian here and here) and realized that was also a valid approach for what I want to try. So here's my internal debate, for anyone else who might be contemplating the same thing.

West Marches: Open Table, Player-Directed, Wilderness Exploration (Breadth)

Megadungeon: Open Table, mix of player and DM direction, single-site exploration (Depth - almost literally - HA!)

My goals here would be to

A) Avoid some of the scheduling hurdles we have faced as even with a fairly dedicated group twice a month has been our average and I think we can do better

B) Bring in some new players

C) Get more use out of all those books on the shelf - play more!

Now the West Marches game that originally started this fire with me stuck to some very strict rules -  1 character per player, no quests from NPC's, and no adventures in town. Some of the original D&D campaigns which inspired the megadungeon type of game did not follow this - players had multiple characters, could gain information and missions from NPC's, and could get into fights and other adventures in town. Figuring out these kinds of ground rules has a huge impact on how the game will work and I have to nail them down before I can send out any information about the game, regardless of the dungeon vs. wilderness question. Let's look at them in order:

One character per player?
I like this idea as it gives everyone a definite identity - "Jim plays a Wizard". It also aids focus - Jim is going to want to be the very best wizard he can be. However I know that over time players may want to try different types of characters and limiting them to one may decrease their interest in playing the game. In old school D&D it was easy enough to make a new character that this wouldn't even be a time issue. WIth 4E character creation is more involved, but with a character creator it really doesn;t take that long if you walk in knowing what you want to play. Plus I would probably require players to show up with a character ready to go, maybe even emailing it to me in advance. So I'm leaning towards allowing multiple characters.

No Adventures in town?
I still like this one for West Marches as there's a whole region to explore. I also really like the "adventure is OUT THERE!" philosophy in general. The town/homeland is safe - it's where you go to spend your money. Out there is not safe, and it's where you go to make your money. For a megadungeon game I can see the town being a handy option for a break from the dungeon - bar brawls and breaking and entering a rival temple or guild - that kind of thing. Right now I'm leaning towards No Adventures in Town.

NPC quest-givers?
This is a tough one as an exploration game almost demands various legends and rumors to jump start interest in the more distant regions/deeper levels. While this could be handled as "you heard it in a bar" type rumor generation, I like the idea of giving the PC"s some social options in town. If they curry favor with the high priest of Thor, he might tip them off down the road about an ancient champion of Thor who went into the dungeon in search of a certain magic item and never returned - and he was also carrying a Hammer of Thunderbolts. It's not a mission from the PC per se as he's not asking them to do anything - he's just informing them. West Marches started people off with treasure maps which gives everyone a specific goal and is a good explanation of why someone would come to the new region in the first place and then relied on player discoveries to fuel further expeditions. I like that approach too but I'm not sure I can completely ditch the handiness of the NPC legend-dump too. I am fine with skipping direct NPC quests though - I think that takes away too much of the player-driven aspect. If the players are sweet-talking or intimidating leads out of NPC's that's still player-driven in my mind and with 2E/3E/4E gives them a mechanically useful arena for their social skills.

Now for the setting considerations:

Advantages that I see here are the wider locations and environments available - forests, mountains, lakes, all with smaller to medium sized dungeons dropped in as needed. There is less chance the players will get bored with the playground. Plus you get to use the overland travel rules which opens up interesting choices about mounts, campsites, spells/rituals, and the weather. Travel and encounters take on a more three dimensional aspect too as there is no roof over your head! It also alleviates some character concerns - more with older editions than 4E, but still lingering - as all characters work well outdoors but druids and rangers and outdoorsy types in general lose some effectiveness in a constant dungeon environment.

Possible downsides: It's less predictable as a party can go anywhere compared with the limited entrance routes to a dungeon, so there is more general prep work involved. It's also easier for a party to get in way over their head as they stumble into a higher level area. In a 4E game I wonder if some of the attention paid to travel plans might detract from the enjoyment of a session as it's not often explored in this edition.

Advantages include focus - there is no question what we're going to do tonight, we're going into the dungeon! Things are also more structured as if Orcus lives on level 20 there's no way for the party to get to him directly from level 1. There will probably only be one known entrance at first, making it _really_ easy to roll out the campaign. That also means I can outline 10 levels or so, prep the first 3, and then run a few sessions before I cover more - I don't even have to decide that Orcus is on level 20 at the start! I also think it's easier to manage a set of dungeon maps game to game than it is to manage a wide-open wilderness over time.

Potential negatives that I see for an open megadungeon game include it being an old-school kind of thing which somewhat limits its appeal, and players potentially getting tired of the whole dungeon thing after a time. It's really a matter of what is standard - this way would be mostly dungeon with some unusual stuff dropped in. Wilderness is a variety of stuff with some dungeon dropped in There are also the impacts on outdoor characters mentioned above. Odly enough I think that the lack of wilderness travel might be a downside with these players, as old-schoolers tend to enjoy that stuff more than many of the new-schoolers. If you don't have to go anywhere you miss out on the main use of some of the cooler spells and magic items.

I do like the idea of a mega-dungeon campaign, but I am still leaning towards a wlderness game for 4E because I can add as much dungeon to that as I want, whereas it's hard to add in miles of forest to a dungeon, even a really big one. Some kind of Underdark wilderness map with mushroom forests, underground lakes, and magma rivers might be an option but I don't want to start there. Maybe the next one can go there. Since my last campaign was a limited geographic area I kind of like the idea of making overland travel a larger factor in this one. For the Megadungeon, there's an old school con around here later this year and that might be a better place to find some interested players rather than starting cold. Additionally I'm not sure about running two open games at the same time as they might interfere with one another scheduling-wise. I'll probably start the 4E one and see how that goes and then consider my options down the road a bit.

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.

Genre considerations:

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..."

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.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Thoughts on a West Marches Game

Background Item #1: If you don't recognize "West Marches" check it out here then come back.

Background Item #2: Someone who tried it with 4th edition D&D here.

I think 4E is perfectly constructed to accomodate this kind of campaign with the levelling of mosters and magic items and the push to smooth things out mechanics-wise. The accusations of being too MMO-like aren't really a negative here as the concept behind a West Marches game is very MMO-like anyway, with the important difference that the players can have a permanent impact on the world through their characters. The geography is similar to the levelled zones found in an MMORPG as well, so the whole thing fits pretty nicely.

Things to steal:

  • I like placing the town across a distant ocean as a colony in a "new world". This means I can run an "anything goes" campaign when it comes to races and classes and such. I can also demand that each player describe their character's place of origin "back home" and potentially turn this into a bit of a world building exercise - potentially for some other campaign! It also means I am not tied to any publised campaign world yet I do not need to map out a civilzed continent - just a town and some wilderness
  • I like the customized wandering monster tables and I think 2d6 is a good place to start.
  • I like the idea of most of the placed magical treasure being wondrous items, replacing the rest with extra cash. 
Further thoughts
  • I could stick with the standard D&D gods, but ... what if defining a homeland also means players can define their own deity as well - more back door world building. 
  • I would consider going with the inherent bonus concept from the DMG 2 and pushed in Dark Sun to remove the need for magical weapons and armor but I'm not sure that makes for a better game in this case. I still like the idea of magic items, even if the PC's are picking out their own most of the time via gold peices instead of finding them in dusty tombs.
  • I can see this going well for Heroic and Paragon tiers but I'm not sure about Epic. I'm not sure that matters anyway. Maybe the sandbox extends into the planes or maybe there's a really nasty portal to the Abyss in the bottom of a dungeon in there somewhere.
Logistical concerns
  • I would want to set up a wiki or Obsidian portal to run this so I would need to refamiliarize myself with those options
  • Need more players to get the true feel of the thing so I would have to post up notices online and in some stores
  • I usually play at home but that might not be the best way to handle it so there's another conversation and possible transportation issue
  • Timing - would this take the place of what has been "game night" or would I try to work it in around my regularly scheduled games? I'm not sure, I suppose some of it depends on the response.

I already have some ideas for the map and locations and encounters, and lord knows we have enough gamers in the area. I really have to think about this.

Additional thought - There are a lot of old-schoolers too. No reason I couldn't run a second game like this in 1E/2E/BECMI/LL/BF though house rules would be an interesting discussion. Plus it would let me indulge my inner old-school DM.

Really thinking about this one...

Monday, January 2, 2012

Game-planning the New Year

I've had a very refreshing week off and spent a lot of time reading and thinking about how I want to spend my gaming time this year. I've realized that the ideal mix for me would be one D&D campaign, one Supers campaign, and one "other" campaign - sci-fi, western, something different. I'm not sure I can arrange that, but it's a goal to keep in mind.

Looking back, I did manage to get in quite a bit of D&D, some Star Wars (both d6 and Saga), some Supers (ICONS & Marvel), and even managed to work in some board games (including Federation Commander) before the end of the year, so I'm going to say "Mission Accomplished" for 2011.

The big want-to's for the year:

  • Run Warhammer Fantasy RP - I've sat on those books for too long and after re-reading a bunch of them it's a really good game that I want to run
  • Run a sandbox game of D&D 4 - too much West Marches on my brain and 4E is darn near tailor-built for this kind of "campaign". More on this later.
  • Try one of the 40K RPG's - they do seem to be popular and lord knows I've spent enough time and money on 40K over the years.
  • Get some kind of regular Savage Worlds game up and running - probably Deadlands, maybe something else

Sandboxing D&D, running ICONS or Necessary Evil with the Apprentices, and then some kind of Deadlands or Warhammer would would meet my other goals above and hit most of this list. I'm continuing the Temple 4E campaign with the Apprentices regardless.

I'm still considering my "game-of-the-month" plan for the apprentices. It might be better to just focus on 2 or 3 recurring games with them and not try to switch out on some limited schedule. Depth or breadth, it's a hard choice.

I kind of feel that if you can find a few games you like and play them regularly with a group of interested players then you shouldn't fret too much about what you're NOT getting to play. Still, this is the time of year for looking ahead so I don't feel to bad thinking out loud and online about it for a bit.

Motivational Monday - Kicking Off 2012!