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if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

West Marches: Secrets & Answers (part 1)

Writing about world-building in the expansion to Microscope got me thinking about West Marches again (more on that in part 2), so I’m taking a break from my kickstarter to answer some questions that have piled up.

Some of these ideas I’ve mentioned before but never elaborated on. Other bits are things I’ve never talked about at all. Because I know lots of people have played or wanted to run West Marches games of their own, I’ve tried to clarify which choices were critical to making the concept work and which were just personal preference. Because there is more than one way to march west…

The Player’s Handbook

Even though I wrote the blog posts in 2007, the actual campaign was years earlier. We started West Marches at the very beginning of 2001 and ended in 2003. 3rd Edition D&D had just come out and we used it for the entire campaign (3.5 wasn’t released until after the game ended).

West Marches character creation followed one very simple rule: you could only build characters using the original Players Handbook. No classes, races, feats, nothing from any other source. And because everything in the Players Handbook was allowed, I could just say, “If it’s in the Player’s Handbook, it’s good” without having to look over anyone’s shoulder or screen characters.

Even religion worked that way. Need a god? Just pick one of the friendly faces in the book, read the tiny paragraph and you’re ready to go. Want to buy something? Check the price on the equipment list and spend away. The only caveat was that no one sold alchemical crap like tanglefoot bags and sunrods for the simple reason that I hated faux-technology stuff. Get a torch or get a wizard!

Using just the Player’s Handbook made life simpler because there were no debates about whether to allow X, Y or Z in the game. It wasn’t even an issue. But even more importantly it started players on the right foot by putting them in the driver’s seat. They didn’t need to ask me to approve anything. If they had the Player’s Handbook, they could make their own decisions. It put them in a West Marches mindset before they even started playing.

Every Square is 5 Feet

The idea that the Player’s Handbook was inviolate, that it was a bedrock you could trust and swear upon, started with character creation but it ran right into game play. Specifically, combat.

Unlike every previous version of D&D (and I mean every single previous version), 3rd Edition did not require judgment calls just to run a simple melee. You didn’t have to ask the GM whether you could get past the lizard man to attack the chief this round or who your fireball would hit. You could just look at the battle map, count the squares and make your move. You could open your PHB, read a page from the combat chapter, and know exactly what you could do and what to expect.

If you started with 3rd Edition or later, this may not seem like a big deal. Trust me, it was. Huge. It fundamentally transformed how D&D was played. As a GM, it meant I could set up the situation and then kick back and let the players decide how to tackle it. They didn’t have to ask me what they were allowed to do each round or hope I ruled in their favor.

Without this fundamental shift, West Marches would not have been possible. Or it would have been a much weaker shadow of itself. Players could never have felt that they were really in control of their own destiny if they had to play “mother may I” in every battle.

Rooting for the Players

Because the rules were well-documented and clear, there were lots of times when West Marches combats would become fascinating (albeit life-threatening) tactical puzzles for everyone at the table. We would all gaze down at the battle map (me included!) and ponder possible moves. Was there a way the barbarian could zig-zag through the kobold hordes and pounce on the shaman lurking in the back? (answer: yes, with clever manuevering he could avoid all but one attack-of-opportunity) Could a totally underpowered rogue anchor the line and prevent the bugbears from wrapping around and flanking the heavy fighters by just dodging like crazy instead of attacking? (answer: yes. By holding her ground in a fight that was out of her league she averted a total party kill at Zirak-zil) Could a staggered retreat get everyone out of the Hydra Cave in one piece? (answer: no. Really, really no)

I’m not talking about telling other players what to do (coaching sucks), I’m talking about analyzing the rules and the options after a player has declared a plan they want to try, but aren’t sure how it will play out mechanically. Someone would say “hmm, could I get to the shaman without getting clobbered by attacks-of-opportunity?” and invite the tactical huddle. These discussions levelled the playing field as far as rules knowledge went. Someone could be totally new to D&D but make reasonable decisions because if there were rules consequences they did not foresee everyone else could (politely) help them understand the odds. Again: informing, not coaching. Characters getting wiped out from making poor decisions was completely legit, but getting wiped out because you misunderstood the rules was not the danger I was trying to promote.

And when I say I would be chatting and trying to figure it out just like everyone else, I mean I really was. Once the combat was under way and the situation was pretty well understood, I often didn’t have any secrets. When a creature attacked, I would happily tell players exactly what its attack bonus was and roll the dice in the open. When a PC attacked, I told them the armor class they were trying to hit. I didn’t tell them actual hit points but I was pretty clear about how wounded something was. Most creatures in West Marches didn’t have weird or surprising abilities. You could generally look at the battle map and see what was up, so I could chat and analyze possible moves just like the other players did.

Being open about basic stats reinforced the idea that the dangers came from the monsters on the table, not from me. Player decisions and the forces in the world mattered, not my whims. When attacks were made, the players looked at the dice, not me. I could root for the players and even help them understand how the rules worked in their favor and it didn’t hurt the tension of the game even slightly. The combat rules of 3rd Edition D&D made that possible.

To be continued. Part 2, West Marches Gods & History…

Dear West Marches

I came to Wizard’s Creek, but there was no wizard
I went to Pike Hollow, but I didn’t see any pikes
I looked in the Golden Hills, but I didn’t find any gold
So why the hell did you expect me to know there was a centaur in Centaur Grove?

–pre-emptive euology of Revor, barbarian and impromptu beat poet, moments before the first PC death in the West Marches

It’s been years and years since my blog posts about West Marches but I still get questions about it.

Hmm, maybe I’ll take a break from my kickstarter this weekend and catch up on answering some of them…

Guilt Con 2015

“Let’s work on our games! Use the devastating weight of procrastination shame to jam it up!”
–the Mighty CHOBBS

Peer pressure makes good company. So this weekend, Marc, Caroline and I set the grindstone speed to “dangerously high” and leaned way, way in. We ignored the pretty-pretty sunshine, the chirpy-chirpy birds, and did the dreadful labor that precedes victory — the horrible, soul-crushing groundwork that must be laid to build a castle in the clouds.

We each have our projects we’re slaving away on: Caroline has Downfall, Marc has Eden, and I’m plugging away at Microscope Explorer.

The genius of working together is that not only does the mere presence of witnesses keep you going, but when you have those roadblocks or doubts, you could turn straight to two other awesome game designers and say “hey, question about character creation…” and bounce some ideas around. Pat runs a weekly Make Stuff gathering, which is fantastic, but I’m usually the only one there working on tabletop games. Most folks are knee-deep in video game dev. Having some other story game designers to brainstorm with was a lovely change of pace.

I don’t want to spill any secrets but much progress was made. This was our first Guilt Con of 2015 but not the last.

Rewriting Your Game From Memory

@lamemage gives hard advice. Rewriting Downfall from memory suuuuucks.

There’s a thing I do when I design games — this is real secret squirrel, behind-the-curtain stuff — which is that after I’ve written a draft or two and playtested a bit, I take everything I’ve written and just put it away. Make a new folder, slap a version number on it, and hide everything in there.

Then I start with a brand new blank page and write the entire game from memory. Blank page. No peeking.

Caroline and Marc are slaving away on Downfall and Eden, respectively, so I suggested they give it a try. Because that’s what friends do: torture you when you’re down.

@lamemage And right after I tweeted that I had a breakthrough. Fuck you.

Sure it’s a great way to test your memory and see if you can remember your own text but that’s not the point. It’s the direct opposite, in fact.

The more you play a game, the more you understand it. That goes double for when you explain the game to someone else. You may not realize it, but your insight into the game has improved so much that the old text is holding you back. If you started from scratch (ehh? see where we’re going?) you would write it in a much more clear and elegant fashion.

Freed from your old structure, you may even find that the game in your mind is very different now. Elements that seemed necessary and critical just fade away. Better ideas take their place. But if you sit down in front of that old text, you have to chisel and hammer to break free. With a blank page, you write what you would say at the table.

I’m not saying it will be easy. It’s a bit of work. But it’s worth it.

Give it a try. And then curse me. And then thank me.

They Have Perspective

I just sent out the sneak peek of my next game as a reward for the fine folks who backed Kingdom at the Perspective level. If you’re a Perspective backer and you didn’t get the link, let me know.

I usually play my cards pretty close to the vest when it comes to projects I’m working on, so this was a bit of a departure for me. It was actually one of the harder things I’ve written in a while.

And no, I’m not going to reveal any of the details — it wouldn’t be a very special special preview if I blabbed. If you missed the Kickstarter, you’ll have to wait to hear about codename “That Game I Talked About In the Perspective Reward”. Yep, need to work on that codename…

Pride Goeth

If I made a war game I would definitely give armies a stat for Pride.

Pride isn’t the same as morale. Pride is a blessing and a curse. Winning increases your Pride and Pride lets you do bold things but it also limits your options. Pride won’t let you back down. Pride won’t let you retreat when you probably should. Pride can’t resist the urge to attack and show your enemy that you are superior.

Pride makes you order Pickett to charge an entrenched enemy who holds the high ground. Pride makes the flower of French chivalry charge into a hail of arrows. Pride makes you throw more and more troops at Stalingrad. Pride makes you push deeper into India when you should probably just sit back and rest at one of your many Alexandrias.

As a game balance mechanic Pride could be lovely. Every victory you won would come with its own built-in cost. Your own successes could turn the tide against you. You could even design scenarios to start with a substantial advantage in troops or disposition but be hamstrung by your overreaching Pride.