West Marches: Layers of History

“Run the simulation in your head: who moved here, what did they build, what happened to them, and then what came next?”

Logic is the cornerstone of a sandbox. If things make sense — if there’s an internal consistency to what’s there and where things are — then players can make good decisions. Paying attention leads to good choices and good choices lead to success. Smart characters survive and flourish.

Without it, the environment is just a guessing game of what the GM decided to put around each corner. There is no way to make intelligent decisions. No fun and not fair.

So how do you make a world that makes sense? You build the history, because the past is what determines the present. Yep, this is where Microscope and West Marches intersect.

Long before I designed Microscope, when I made D&D worlds I would imagine layers of history one top of each other, jumping back and forth in my head to figure out what happened and how all of that led to what was here now. Or vice versa: something you create in the present makes you think “hmm, where did that come from”, so you dig back in history to establish its origin.

So when I sat down to make a simple little wilderness I named “West Marches” for some old school adventure, did I just draw some dungeons and pick critters from ye olde Monster Manual? No, first I figured out what was here before. Nothing super-detailed, just a starting concept for the world and a skeleton of history.

Layers of History

A skeleton of history is your friend. Even the simplest outline tells you what belongs in the world and what doesn’t, and that’s a welcome advantage when you’re trying to seed your wilderness with some danger and points of interest. That’s two benefits, if you’re keeping track: it doesn’t just make play better, it also makes it easier to populate your world.

Start with three or four independent layers of history. Just a simple concept, not too much detail. This is the local history of the region, but it might reflect larger world events. Or not. For West Marches, my layers looked like:

  • Duke drives back the goblins, settlements push into the wilderness and then fail
  • Dwarven exiles migrate here and build colonies far from home
  • Dark ages of the “Barrow Men”, scattered feudal lairds, clans, and primitive warrior-kings
  • Remnants of the god-wars, end of the sacred age, forgotten gods

That’s descending chronological order, with the most recent (and therefore most visible and known) events at the top, because that makes more sense to me. Farther down the list are things buried in the past, dwindling into myth and legend. The ruins from those elder days are the most worn down and picked over, while the remnants from the top are the most recent and fresh.

Each layer is completely independent and pretty far apart. The Barrow Men kings were mouldering bones in their mounds by the time the outcast dwarves of Black River came looking for hills to hew into new homes. Most importantly (for my plans for the West Marches), each of those layers of history left its imprint, but was also largely wiped away, letting the region revert almost entirely to wilderness by the time another period started.

More stuff happens in between those layers, but these are the big bookmarks, the key phases of the past that shaped this region.

Armed with just those very simple ideas, I can draw inspiration for what to put on the map and I know why things are the way they are. Now when I’m fleshing out the Rotting Oaks and I feel like an empty area needs some kind of interesting landmark, I can say to myself: “hmm, the settlers would not have gotten this far from Minol Valley, but the dwarves would have come through here when they built their second hall in the Lonely Hills, so a Dwarven marker stone or an isolated tomb of someone who died along the way would make sense.” Boom, problem solved.

I could even have multiple layers of history built one upon the other in a single location. I know there are goblins in Cradle Wood because they are the remnants that were pushed back by the Duke’s armies decades ago. The kings of the Barrow Men were here before, so the goblin lair could be an old ruined keep they found and infested. But in the caverns beneath it are the ancient holy caves that the warrior-kings feared and held sacred, remnants of the gods whose names men have forgotten. Now I’ve got a dungeon with three distinct strata of source material to work with. Yeah, that’s a very literal “layers” example, but you get the idea.

The action in each layer of history doesn’t have to be spread evenly across the map. Some events might sweep across the whole region, but others might only affect some areas while the rest remains untouched. The dwarves colonized a few key areas and delved deep there, but most of the West Marches have no dwarven ruins, though I could still put in dwarven treasure and relics that could be found nearby (you read Treasure Tells A Story, right?)

And just like Microscope, your history is not going to emerge all at once. You may start with a mere skeleton (and like I said, you should really try to start with something simple), but as you keep playing you’ll figure out more detail and nuance, which will inform what should be in the world and why. You might even think of new layers you want to add, or maybe you just explore what you’ve established more and more.

Game Master: Keeper of Secrets

Part of my old D&D philosophy was that, by definition, the GM knows more than the players. You create a bunch of stuff, but instead of telling the players, you hide it. You don’t lecture them about the world: they explore and figure things out. Or they don’t.

In most of my campaigns, I kept major secrets for *years and years*. When the players figured it out, their minds were understandably blown.

Even if the background I made never came out, knowing it changed my attitude as a GM. Things in the “present” felt more real, less like things I had just made up, because they were outgrowths of the hidden history. That changed my mannerisms in play. I knew what the players were seeing were just pieces of a larger puzzle, so I treated the setting with gravitas and respect.

I don’t think that’s the only way to GM, but for West Marches, where you want players to think and deduce, it’s a perfect fit. If secrets are hard to uncover, then when the players figure things out it’s a victory. They can be proud of their success just like winning a fight (q.v. finally discovering the Abbot’s hidden study after a half dozen different sorties missed it).

So all these layers of history you’ve made: *don’t tell the players about them*. Don’t even want them to find out. Which is a very appropriate attitude for all West Marches GMing, where as the GM you really should not really *want* anything. Let them explore and experience and figure it out, if they’re interested. If they’re not, that’s fine too, because that’s not what they’re there for. The world will still be a better, more consistent place for them to tempt fate and dare the unknown because of the hidden history.

    Ben Robbins | June 29th, 2018 | | show 8 comments