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Grand Experiments: West Marches (part 2), Sharing Info

Players sharing information was a critical part of the West Marches design. Because there was a large pool of players, the average person was in about a third of the games — or to look it the other way, each player missed two-thirds of the games. Add in that each player was in a random combination of sessions (not even playing with a consistent subset of players) and pretty quickly each player is seeing a unique fraction of the game. No one is having the same game experience, which sounds philosophically interesting but is bad news if you want everyone to feel like they are in the same game. Sharing info was essential to keeping everyone on the same page and in the same game.

There were two main ways information got shared: game summaries and the shared map.

Shared Experience: Game Summaries

Players were strongly encouraged to chat about their adventures between games. Email (specifically a list devoted to the game) made between-game communication very easy, something that would have been next to impossible years earlier. This discussion theoretically mirrored chatter between characters who had made it safely back to the town. Did you stumble into the barrow mounds in Wil Wood and barely escape with your life? Warn other adventurers so they can steer clear. Did you slay wolves on the moors until the snow was red with blood? Brag about it so everyone else knows how tough you are.

What started off as humble anecdotes evolved into elaborate game summaries, detailed stories written by the players recounting each adventure (or misadventure). Instead of just sharing information and documenting discoveries (“we found ancient standing stones north of the Golden Hills”), game summaries turned into tributes to really great (and some really tragic) game sessions, and eventually became a creative outlet in their own right. Players enjoyed writing them and players enjoyed reading them, which kept players thinking about the game even when they weren’t playing.

Shared World: the Table Map

The other major way information was shared was the table map. When the game first started the PCs heard a rumor that years ago when other adventurers had tried their luck exploring the West Marches, they had sat in the taproom of the Axe & Thistle to compare notes. While trying to describe an area of the wilds, a few thirsty patrons had scratched out a simple map on the top of the table (an X here, a line here). Over time others started adding bits, cleaning it up, and before long it had grown from some scratches to a detailed map carved into most of the surface of the table showing forests, creeks, caves, ominous warnings, etc. Where was that table now? Gone, but no one was sure where — maybe carried off as a souvenir, smashed in a brawl and used for kindling, or perhaps just thrown out after it was too scratched to rest a drink flatly.

On hearing this story the PCs immediately decided to revive the tradition (just as I hoped they would) and started to carve their own crude map on a large table in the taproom of the Axe & Thistle. As the campaign went on all the PCs would gather around it, quaff an ale, and plan adventures. In the real world it was a single sheet of graph paper with the town and the neighboring areas drawn in pretty well, and then about four or five more pieces of graph paper taped on haphazardly whenever someone wandered off the edge or explored just a little bit farther. Because the map was in a public place and any PC could get to it, I brought it to every game session for the PCs to add to or edit and kept a reasonably up-to-date scanned copy on the web for reference between games. In the end maybe half a dozen different players had put their hand to it.

Was the table map accurate? Not really, but having a common reference point, a shared sense of what they thought the region looked like kept everyone feeling like they were playing in the same world.

An intentional side effect of both game summaries and the shared map was that they whetted people’s appetite to play. When people heard about other players finding the Abbots’ study in a hidden room of the ruined monastery, or saw on the map that someone else had explored beyond Centaur Grove, it made them want to get out there and play too. Soon they were scheduling their own game sessions. Like other aspects of West Marches it was a careful allowance of competitiveness and even jealously to encourage more gaming.

It was also important to me as a GM that players share knowledge because otherwise I knew that no one would put the pieces together. Remember how I said there was no plot? There wasn’t. But there was history and interconnected details. Tidbits found in one place could shed light elsewhere. Instead of just being interesting detail, these clues lead to concrete discoveries if you paid attention. If you deciphered the runes in the depths of the dwarven mines, you could learn that the exiles established another hidden fortress in the valleys to the north. Now go look for it. Or maybe you’ll learn how to get past the Black Door or figure out what a “treasure beyond bearing” actually is. Put together the small clues hidden all across the map and you can uncover the big scores, the secret bonus levels.

Next up: West Marches (part 3) Recycling

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