Saturday, August 23, 2008

The West Marches of Cinder?

In the comments to last Friday's post on my World of Cinder sandbox Joseph asks:
Are you going to be going the full "West Marches" route with your sandbox? Have a bunch of different players who may or may not show up for any given adventure? Or will there be a single main party playing in the sandbox?
Good question. So that everyone here on the ol' Gameblog is up to speed, I'm going to quote Ben Robbins' original West Marches article. Dig it:
1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.

2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.

3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

Ben's point #3 is a given here, since the whole point of this exercise is to run a sandbox game in the vein of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

I like point #2 because I'd very much like to run an "open" campaign, as was more common in the good ol' days. Anybody who wants to contact me for some D&D is welcome to swing a sword in the Midrealm of Cinder. That doesn't just apply to locals in the gaming scene. You're coming through Central Illinois and you have a few hours? Give me a call. I'm in the phonebook. Or you know, email jrients at gmail dot com. Hell, bring your favorite character. No promises that I'll let that 35th level Paladin/Assassin into my world, but I'll do my best to work with something reasonable. I'd even consider allowing characters made with some non-D&D systems. Or we can just throw some dice and whip something up. No big whoop.

Not having a regular schedule and leaving the scheduling in the player's hands has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, I avoid the hassle of being both the guy running the gameworld and the guy organizing the sessions. That's very groovy. On the other hand I've seen lots of games go to pasture without the social glue of This Is Game Night. On the third hand, if I could get a group that wanted to play together every other Wednesday (or whatever) in addition to others playing on an ad hoc basis I'd be very happy to have my cake and eat it too.

One thing that worries me about the West Marches set-up is Robbins' insistence that town adventures are anathema. Check this out from a later post in the West Marches series:
be careful not to change the focus to urban adventure instead of exploration. You can have as many NPCs as you want in town, but remember it’s not about them. Once players start talking to town NPCs, they will have a perverse desire to stay in town and look for adventure there. “Town game” was a dirty word in West Marches. Town is not a source of info. You find things by exploring, not sitting in town — someone who explores should know more about what is out there than someone in town.
When running D&D I usually focus heavily, almost exclusively, on dungeon adventures. The whole point of starting the Cinder project was to get some wilderness and urban adventures in the mix. And I suspect I can avoid the kind of pitfalls Robbins encountered by the simple fact that I really can't run the kind of adventures his players wanted to find in the towns. My idea of a town adventure goes something like blah, blah, blah, there's a fight, and then the town burns down.


  1. enjoy the 'open' concept

    in my glory days of DMing
    if a player couldnt make it
    the game must go on . . .
    i would make a lame excuse such as

    missing PC X is looking for his lost horse

    missing PC Y had to take a break to recover from unexpected complications from last game session's injuries

    missing PC Z is learning that a
    haste potion + a love potion = slipped disc

    etc, etc . .

  2. Yeah, in my games the show must go on, too. A DM friend is starting an open campaign right now. We're using Doodle to find dates and do the rest of the stuff on the Wiki:

    Check out the Doodle screenshot.

  3. I'm not sure this would work for me, but I can see the allure. At one point the Maniac was doing something KIND of like this- he had "extra" players in case some didn't show up. It usually worked for him because he is an "on the fly" man.

    Me, I haven't RUN anything since... um... gah. I think since before the TallBoy was born. I am so out of practice I don't know if 1) I could or would do it again, 2) remember HOW, 3)be willing/able to try something new.

    It's an interesting thought. Sort of like a serial TV show where the action is driven by where they are and who they interact with. You've got me thinking...

  4. Anonymous7:34 AM

    "One thing that worries me about the West Marches set-up is Robbins' insistence that town adventures are anathema." This is an example, I think, of generalizing too far from personal experience. I am therefore going to respond by generalizing too far from personal experience. :)

    When I started with D&D, in 1977, exotic wildernesses and cool towns were both very much part of the mix. The older guys down at the Caltech gaming group had some fascinating world designs - technomagical Ringworld-like entities and such along with less defined "here's some wilderness" settings. We high schoolers didn't get quite so baroque, but lots of us had read our Leiber and were busily making cities that combined bits from Newhon along with swipes from history and this and that.

    City State of the Invincible Overlord came along the next year, but it was more a matter of "oh, look, urban adventure amped up and up" than "gosh, I never thought of urban adventure until now".

    If dungeon maps are flowcaharts - and one of the useful insights that came my way in recent years is that they are - then the same spirit can apply to things that aren't dungeons. You can easily enough structure a city the same way, with the equivalent of a room being maybe a small neighborhood or district. The map shows you where you can go from there, and encounters pull or push you along.

  5. Hey Jeff...

    I do believe that Wednesday evenings are free at the 'Gopher if you wanted to run there.


  6. Thanks for the great advice, everyone. Dave, I may take you up on that.

  7. Now I just need an excuse to travel to Illinois.

    --Mike D.

  8. I am honored that you riffed off my lil' ol' comment for this. Excellent stuff.

    My own Greyhawk campaign is a sandbox (with a single party, alas; I had wanted to do a full-blown West Marches-type game, but couldn't find enough folks interested in playing 1E AD&D in New Jersey).

    I don't completely eschew story arcs, however. There are many of them out there, and the PCs can stumble into them. Twice now, they've followed them through, more times than that, they've ignored them.

    I think that's one of the keys of a sandbox; there doesn't have to be _no_ story arcs, but the choice to enter them or not (or, once in, to abandon them and deal with the consequences) rests squarely with the players.

    For that to work, though, you either have to be insanely well-prepared, or able to really think on your feet as a DM 100% of the time. I opt for the latter, but that's only personal preference. The death of a sandbox is to say "let's pick this up next Friday, so I can have a chance to map out that dungeon."

  9. Interesting -- I'm in Chicago, and I may just take you up on the chance to drive down and play for a few hours. You're in Flanagan, right?

  10. Actually I'm from Flanagan. I live in Urbana nowadays, so its a bit longer a drive from Chi-town.