West Marches was a game I ran for a little over two years. It was designed to be pretty much the diametric opposite of the normal weekly game:
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.
My motivation in setting things up this way was to overcome player apathy and mindless “plot following” by putting the players in charge of both scheduling and what they did in-game.
A secondary goal was to make the schedule adapt to the complex lives of adults. Ad hoc scheduling and a flexible roster meant (ideally) people got to play when they could but didn’t hold up the game for everyone else if they couldn’t. If you can play once a week, that’s fine. If you can only play once a month, that’s fine too.
Letting the players decide where to go was also intended to nip DM procrastination (aka my procrastination) in the bud. Normally a DM just puts off running a game until he’s 100% ready (which is sometimes never), but with this arrangement if some players wanted to raid the Sunken Fort this weekend I had to hurry up and finish it. It was gaming on-demand, so the players created deadlines for me.
The game was set in a frontier region on the edge of civilization (the eponymous West Marches). There’s a convenient fortified town that marked the farthest outpost of civilization and law, but beyond that is sketchy wilderness. All the PCs are would-be adventurers based in this town. Adventuring is not a common or safe profession, so the player characters are the only ones interested in risking their lives in the wilderness in hopes of making a fortune (NPCs adventurers are few and far between). Between sorties into the wilds PCs rest up, trade info and plan their next foray in the cheery taproom of the Axe & Thistle.
The whole territory is (by necessity) very detailed. The landscape is broken up into a variety of regions (Frog Marshes, Cradle Wood, Pike Hollow, etc.) each with its own particular tone, ecology and hazards. There are dungeons, ruins, and caves all over the place, some big and many small. Some are known landmarks (everbody knows where the Sunken Fort is), some are rumored but their exact location is unknown (the Hall of Kings is said to be somewhere in Cradle Wood) and others are completely unknown and only discovered by exploring (search the spider-infested woods and you find the Spider Mound nest).
PCs get to explore anywhere they want, the only rule being that going back east is off-limits — there are no adventures in the civilized lands, just peaceful retirement.
The environment is dangerous. Very dangerous. That’s intentional, because as the great MUD Nexus teaches us, danger unites. PCs have to work together or they are going to get creamed. They also have to think and pick their battles — since they can go anywhere, there is nothing stopping them from strolling into areas that will wipe them out. If they just strap on their swords and charge everything they see they are going to be rolling up new characters. Players learn to observe their environment and adapt — when they find owlbear tracks in the woods they give the area a wide berth (at least until they gain a few levels). When they stumble into the lair of a terrifying hydra they retreat and round up a huge posse to hunt it down.
The PCs are weak but central: they are small fish in a dangerous world that they have to explore with caution, but because they are the only adventurers they never play second fiddle. Overshadowed by looming peaks and foreboding forests yes. Overshadowed by other characters, no.
The West Marches charter is that games only happen when the players decide to do something — the players initiate all adventures and it’s their job to schedule games and organize an adventuring party once they decide where to go.
Players send emails to the list saying when they want to play and what they want to do. A normal scheduling email would be something like “I’d like to play Tuesday. I want to go back and look for that ruined monastery we heard out about past the Golden Hills. I know Mike wants to play, but we could use one or two more. Who’s interested?” Interested players chime in and negotiation ensues. Players may suggest alternate dates, different places to explore (“I’ve been to the monastery and it’s too dangerous. Let’s track down the witch in Pike Hollow instead!”), whatever — it’s a chaotic process, and the details sort themselves out accordingly. In theory this mirrors what’s going on in the tavern in the game world: adventurers are talking about their plans, finding comrades to join them, sharing info, etc.
The only hard scheduling rules are:
1) The GM has to be available that day (obviously) so this system only works if the GM is pretty flexible.
2) The players have to tell the GM where they plan on going well in advance, so he (meaning me) has at least a chance to prepare anything that’s missing. As the campaign goes on this becomes less and less of a problem, because so many areas are so fleshed out the PCs can go just about anywhere on the map and hit adventure. The GM can also veto a plan that sounds completely boring and not worth a game session.
All other decisions are up to the players — they fight it out among themselves, sometimes literally.