Grand Experiments: West Marches (part 3), Recycling

Did you read part 1 and part 2 already? No? Go do that.

Running frequent on-demand games is a lot of work, but because the campaign was set in a fixed region there were ways I could maximize the reusability of some material I prepared.

Recycled Maps: Evolving Dungeons

Maps were a good example — I could pour tons of detail into wilderness maps because I knew characters would be returning to those areas frequently. Even after some players had mostly explored a region they still had to trek through it get to farther away areas. Plus since there were lots of players there was always someone going to an area for the first time. Lots of return on investment. Compare that to a normal game where the players might stroll through a region once and never look back.

Interior maps of dungeons, ruins, etc. were also a very good investment, because even if a party came through and wiped out all the creatures the floor plan did not change. Come back a season later and who knows what will have taken up residence. Wipe out the entrenched kobolds and next spring the molds and fungi that were a minor hazard before have spread into whole colonies of mushroom warriors. Drive the pirates out of the Sunken Fort and its lonely halls become the hunting ground for the fishy devils from the sea — or maybe the whole place is just empty. These “evolving dungeons” were a key feature of the West Marches.

Recycled Danger: Wandering Monsters

Another massively useful tool was the venerable yet mockable wandering monster table. No, seriously. Think about it: by creating a unique wandering monster table for each wilderness area (one for the Frog Marshes, one for the Notch Fells, etc.) I could carefully sculpt the precise flavor for each region. It made me think very carefully about what each area was like, what critters lived there and what kind of terrain hazards made sense (anything from bogs to rock-slides to exposure to marsh fever). They were effectively the definition for each territory.

Most tables also had one or more results that told you to roll on the table for an adjacent region instead. If you’re in Minol Valley you might run afoul of a goblin hunting party that came over the pass from Cradle Wood. The odds were weighted based on how likely creatures were to wander between the regions.

For all encounters there was also a chance of getting two results instead of one: roll twice and come up with a situation combining the two. It might be a bear trapped in quicksand, or a bear that comes across you while you’re trapped in quicksand. Combining two wandering monsters results is surefire way to come up with an interesting encounter.

Just having these detailed wandering monster tables at my fingertips meant I was always ready when players decided to do a little “light exploring.” These tables got used over and over and over again.

Players never saw these wandering monster tables, but they got to know the land very, very well. They knew that camping on the Battle Moors was begging for trouble (particularly near the full moon), they knew that it was wise to live and let live in the Golden Hills, and they knew to keep an ear out for goblin horns in Cradle Wood. Becoming wise in the ways of the West Marches was part of their job as players and a badge of merit when they succeeded.

next up: West Marches, part 4

    Ben Robbins | October 26th, 2007 | , , | hide comments
  1. #10 knight.errant says:

    Any chance you still have those wandering monster tables or any other details on the different regions (Golden Hills etc.) you’d be willing to share?

  2. #9 Bryan H. says:

    I know this thread is ages old, but I was wondering if you might share your wandering monster tables if they still exist. Or point me towards a good resource.

  3. #8 ben robbins says:

    @ CyricPL

    “However, I wanted to let you know that there seems to be a problem with your RSS feed — I keep trying to add it to my Google Reader, and it keeps coming back with no items in the feed.”

    I think I’m behind a version or two in WordPress. That might be the problem.

  4. #7 ben robbins says:

    @ cr0m

    “What happens when a group ventures into an area that’s way too tough for them? Do you just mercilessly TPK them in the first hour and then go home?”

    Ideally it shouldn’t be a surprise. As I get into in part 4, the game world has to be consistent enough that players can make good decisions. When you find huge claw marks slashing tree boles and not a sound in the forest, you may want to start thinking that you’ve wandered into owlbear territory. Time to go!

    Running away was a popular and often very wise pastime in West Marches. Plus it gave the wolves exercise as they chased you across the Moors.

    “What about if one group goes into say, the Sunken Fort, but before they finish clearing it out, another group calls you up and says “let’s raid the Sunken Fort” and they clear it. Do you pick up with the first group standing in a deserted dungeon? Do you let them both clear the dungeon separately and both take credit?”

    It would depend more on the timeline the game world than the real world timeline. All scheduling was on the email list so we tried to avoid games that would lead to complicated in-game cross-over (“we played for five days, but on day two you would have passed through our camp…”) — if a party was still stuck someplace, other groups would usually avoid the area unless they were launching an actual rescue mission (which did happen).

    “Speaking of ending mid-dungeon, do you make them hole up somewhere before quitting time, or just suspend animation?”

    See more about the returning to town rule here. If they couldn’t get back to town, we usually tried to end with camping, even if was while barricaded in the cellars of the ghoul-infested monastery.

    “This idea has really captured my imagination. It’s kinda like a MMOTRPG (Massively Multiplayer Offline Tabletop RPG).”

    Yep, it really is. The “many players in the shared world” really goes all the way back to the grand old campaigns like Blackmoor and Greyhawk.

  5. #6 Dylan Zimmerman says:

    I’m really, really enjoying this West Marches idea, and I will probably incorporate it into the gaming I want to do here at University. Just hoping part four comes out soon! Keep up the excellent work!

  6. #5 CyricPL says:

    Hey, great site! I just found it through Treasure Tables, and not only does this campaign sound like a great design, but I found some great rules and ideas for my current game in your archives. However, I wanted to let you know that there seems to be a problem with your RSS feed — I keep trying to add it to my Google Reader, and it keeps coming back with no items in the feed.

  7. #4 Chris Gardiner says:

    This is absolutely fascinating stuff. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  8. #3 cr0m says:

    Some questions I’ve been buggin’ me and I hope you’ll answer them in the next installment:

    What happens when a group ventures into an area that’s way too tough for them? Do you just mercilessly TPK them in the first hour and then go home? I can think of what I might do, but I’m really curious to find out what worked for you IRL.

    What about if one group goes into say, the Sunken Fort, but before they finish clearing it out, another group calls you up and says “let’s raid the Sunken Fort” and they clear it. Do you pick up with the first group standing in a deserted dungeon? Do you let them both clear the dungeon separately and both take credit?

    Speaking of ending mid-dungeon, do you make them hole up somewhere before quitting time, or just suspend animation?

    This idea has really captured my imagination. It’s kinda like a MMOTRPG (Massively Multiplayer Offline Tabletop RPG). :)

  9. #2 cr0m says:

    Can’t wait for part 4! Great stuff, as always.

  10. #1 Lexifab says:

    Wow, this is such a great idea. I’ve been tinkering with ideas for how to approach D&D 4th Edition when it comes out, and this might be a really good way to resolve our extended game group’s horrible horrible scheduling issues.

    I’m really looking forward to part 4. Cool!

    Dave

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