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West Marches: A Survivor’s Story

Lo and behold, after twenty years one of the original West Marches players popped back up and shared some memories in the comments, and frankly they are too good not to give a post of their own.

Tommy, aka Lucky, aka Briarweed, sez:

I stumbled onto some discussions of “West Marches” DM style, and followed the rabbit hole down to these blog posts. Now I know why it sounded so familiar: I played in some of those early games! I only made it to like 4 sessions before moving back to the east coast in April of ’02, but I still have many vivid memories of those games.

A handful of those memories:

– The cool concept of that big wooden table where other adventurers had begun carving out the map. A few big Xs where previous heroes had fallen (and maybe left some of their treasure and items behind to collect.)

– A legitimately terrifying encounter with shadows, and a big black door that we couldn’t get past no matter what we tried.

– First character, a rogue who (unsuccessfully) tried to convince the L2 party that he was a bard, mostly pulling his weight through a dungeon, and then dying to a random crit from a wolf on the way back to town. RIP Lucky before he could even level up once.

– Reading the email tributes to Lucky after his failed attempt to make his mark on the Marches. Don’t worry about the broken lute, warrior bro; he had a spare “travel lute.”

– My next character, a druid named Briarweed: harrowing explorations through an undead-infested temple, turning the tide of a perilous battle with a timely cast of shillelagh.

– A near-TPK water trap. The rogue kept failing checks, and several players drowning before we barely managed to escape. I still recall our desperate attempts to make it through a rest in the forest while soaking wet in sub-zero temperatures, nursing the drowned warrior back to health, rationing goodberries, fighting off random encounters, and using every skill, ability, or spell I could find on my sheet to help keep the party alive in those cold wastes so we could make it back to town.

Good times. Despite my short time in the West Marches, and the dozens of campaigns I’ve played or DM’ed in before or since, I remember those sessions as some of my favorite gaming experiences.

“We buried the finest Bard in all the land and took his rations for ourselves, trudging back to keep town, weary, worn and poorer then when we left.” -from the email chat

Yes, Lucky unluckily joined the game right around the time the players concluded that just sitting around the Axe & Thistle for the winter would drain their savings, and decided to do a little “light exploring” in the snow, facing off wolf packs and making an already dangerous water trap infinitely more hazardous. On the bright side, Briarweed made it to level 2! Good times indeed.

Ben Robbins | September 1st, 2021 | | 4 comments

Only Say Yes to a Yes

“Say yes” is a fundamental principle of just about every shared creative process. “Yes and”, “yes but” — either way, say yes. And it is absolutely good advice for role-playing games. Accept what other people contribute. Embrace what’s been said as established truth and build on it. Don’t contradict it.

But there’s a big caveat that doesn’t get mentioned: You should only say yes to another yes. Don’t say yes to something that contradicts what we’ve already agreed to. Don’t say yes to someone else’s no.

People are not always good at saying no, but it is vital to the health of your game and everyone’s fun.

The Interlocking Chain of Yes

Every single role-playing game is an interlocking chain of yes’s, all the way back to the very start.

Yes we agree we are going to play Traveller. Yes these are our characters. Yes we’re on a spaceship. Yes the ship is dubbed the Clever Goose. Yes we’re low on fuel. Yes we just went into orbit around a strange planet. Yes a missile is flying towards us, etc.

If we don’t agree about something or don’t know what’s true — does our spaceship have a shuttle, did my lightning bolt kill the orc — we stop and figure it out until we do agree. Maybe we just discuss, maybe we roll dice, or maybe the rules say a particular player decides. The methods vary in different games, but either way, we establish what is true or we agree that we don’t know the answer yet.

That agreement is the bedrock that makes our shared imaginary enterprise function. A long time ago, Vincent Baker said that the very nature of role-playing games is that we all have to agree about the truth of the fictional world or we can’t play. That’s exactly right. If I think you’re inside the house and you think you’re outside the house, nothing we say to each other is going to make sense.

Every additional thing that happens in the game, whether it’s saying your character draws their sword, declaring someone’s hair color, or scanning for a cloaked ship, is another yes in the chain. We have agreed that all that previous stuff was true, and we just keep adding more. Each agreement builds on all the previous agreements.

Along Comes a No

And then someone comes along and breaks the chain. They say something that contradicts what we’ve already agreed to or established. We agreed early on that there wasn’t going to be any AI in our game, but then a player starts describing talking to the Clever Goose’s onboard computer…

It’s an easy mistake to make — we’re creating whole worlds on the fly, so there’s a lot to keep track of. Someone gets so excited about an idea they come up with that they don’t stop and think about how it conflicts with something we already established. They’ve introduced a contradiction to our fiction.

What do you do? Politely say no. Stop and say “hey, we already said that X was true, so doesn’t what you just said go against that?” Reminding everyone what we had all previously agreed to shows that you aren’t arbitrarily saying no because you don’t like the idea, you’re helping us stick to what we built together. They said no, whether they realized it or not. You’re just pointing it out.

You may feel like you’re being the bad guy, but you’re doing everyone a favor by identifying a contradiction before it sows confusion.

Saying no to a no is really just the start of that conversation. It declares that we have something we need to untangle. Maybe we talk about it and decide it’s something we want to change. That’s fine, but any revision has to be a conscious decision we all agree to. Revisions and changes must walk in, announce themselves loudly, and be welcomed by the table. They cannot sneak in under the cloak of night.

Why Not Just Say Yes?

But if someone is excited about an idea shouldn’t you just let it slide and embrace it, no matter what we said before? Isn’t it more fun to just say yes?

First of all, you should always call out contradictions to keep your fiction working. If you don’t identify and resolve contradictions, things will stop making sense and the game will grind to a confusing halt.

And second, when you’re tempted to embrace every new idea that comes along, remember that everything already in the fiction came from another player. By introducing a contradiction, this player is stepping on someone else’s previous contribution. We should all try to respect the original contribution we agreed to.

And everyone else is effected too, because we have all been building on that idea we agreed to, no matter who introduced it. Even if the same player created the very thing they are now contradicting, they can’t just change it without everyone’s consent. Once an idea is committed to the shared fiction, we all have a stake in it.

Don’t Break the Chain

It’s worth mentioning that safety vetoes (X-card, etc) are an entirely differently beast. If someone wants to remove something because it makes them uncomfortable, we absolutely should, no debate. Which is precisely why we have a distinct “safeword”, so we know it’s a special case.

Are creative contradictions something to watch out for more in GMless games, because there isn’t a singular authority figure who declares what is true and what isn’t? Yes, I think so. Instead it’s all of our jobs to keep the game working. You may recall that in Microscope, “don’t contradict what’s already been said” is an overt rule, but it’s really an underlying principle that makes all role-playing games work.

So don’t break the chain of yes’s. And if someone else does, be brave and say no. Everyone’s game will be better for it.

Ben Robbins | August 19th, 2021 | , , | 1 comment

Blood of the Star-Dragon

Twenty three sessions into our “Department of Witches” Kingdom Legacy game, we discover that the bloodline of witches first began in prehistoric times, when five hunters came across the shattered body of the dragon that had fallen from the stars.

Every witch in our game is descended from the blood of these five. From the primitive tribes to medieval kings, all the way to thousands of years later in our hackerpunk future.

So it’s probably reeeeeeal important we don’t check a bunch of Crisis and wipe out this tribe we’re about to play, only a few generations later. Because we don’t have that many bloodlines to work with…

Ben Robbins | August 11th, 2021 | , , | 1 comment

Gods & Kingdomon

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update about our epic Pokemon-inspired Kingdom Legacy campaign, but now Caroline has taken up the torch to talk about our very latest era, in which we worship our adorable pocket monsters as GODS…

There’s always another Kingdom

Less Than Three blog: There’s always another Kingdom

Each era we’ve really thought about how our relationship with the Jedo has been different, and worshipping them as gods really takes the cake.

Also, the Kickstarter for Caroline’s new game, Fedora Noir, only has a few days left, so go check it out! You might play the detective, or you might play the detective’s Hat…

Ben Robbins | August 6th, 2021 | , , ,

Behold, You Can Get Email Notifications!

Social media is awful for actually communicating, so how’s a clever person like you to avoid missing the stuff I post here in the dark hours of the night, when even the owls are asleep?

Well now it’s easy, because I’ve set up email notifications. Sign up and you’ll get a message every time I post a new article.

Hopefully this will make life a lot easier for folks who want to keep up with my posts. There shouldn’t be too much traffic since I don’t post that often and you can unsubscribe whenever you want.

Welcome aboard!

Ben Robbins | August 5th, 2021 | | 2 comments

Downfall: Revolution

The only thing I love more than making intricate, fascinating worlds when I game is making intricate, fascinating worlds and then watching them burn.

Which is why I love Caroline’s game, Downfall. I love making the world and fleshing out all the traditions, and I love the tight personal tensions. And I’m guessing a lot of you do too, because you are wise and savvy gentle people with exceptional taste.

Downfall is great, but if there’s one thing I’d change (and to paraphrase Tolkien’s own criticism of Lord of the Rings), it’s that the game is too short! It’s a really good fit for one-shots, but I want some multi-session Downfall where we really get to spend time in this tragically flawed society we created.

So what if instead of exploring the life of a single hero, we had a whole revolution, with new heroes rising to carry on the cause…?

The Hero May Fall, But The Revolution Goes On

Part of the premise of Downfall is that there is only one Hero, the person who recognizes that the Flaw at the root of society is exactly that: a flaw. The Hero fights to save society but ultimately fails, because, hey, the game is called “Downfall” right? It’s very much the Hero’s story.

For this “Revolution” hack, you would start off with a single hero just like normal, but other heroes would emerge as you play. Maybe they’re people who were inspired to follow in the hero’s footsteps — or maybe they think the hero was a failure who wasn’t willing to do what needed to be done: they’ll do it right.

When you introduce new heroes, it’s best if they have some connection to the old hero, directly or indirectly, even if it’s just that the rising hero watched the old hero’s trial on TV. That ties all the stories together. A new hero could have their own new Fallen and Pillars or we could keep using previous Fallen and Pillar characters if there’s a strong connection there.

The first Fallen was an official who worked with the Hero before the Hero turned his back on the system, but the new Hero is that Fallen’s estranged daughter. The new Pillar is the new young Hero’s best friend, who loves her but doesn’t understand what she’s so fired up about.

Or maybe we don’t even know who the next hero is until the old one falls or gives up. Maybe it’s the rising star we expected… or maybe it’s someone totally different. Maybe the person we *thought* was going to follow in the hero’s footsteps turns around and embraces the Flaw instead… dum dum dum!

Each round the story is always about just one hero: the scenes are all about them. If another hero makes an appearance, they’re a secondary character, not the focus. At the end of each round you could switch to a different hero as the focus, weaving back and forth between their stories, or just keep playing the same hero all the way to their destruction. Either works.

In the end the society is still going to fall — yes, it’s still Downfall! — but I think telling the story of multiple heroes would shift the focus to the society’s issues instead of the life of just one person. It gives us more time to explore different facets of the culture, and also dig into all the different ways our heroes can fail: one might go down fighting, another get worn down and give up, while another turns into the very thing they hate…

Greater Than Three Games

I think some groups haven’t played as much Downfall as they’d like because it is designed for exactly three players. If you’ve got four people at the table, Downfall is off the menu. Which is a crime.

So as long as we’re turning everything topsy-turvy, what about playing with more than three people??? The turn order and player balance are crafted like a fine Swiss watch, so hacking it like this will doubtless lose some of that grace, but I think it’s a worthwhile trade to let people play Downfall when they otherwise couldn’t. I also suspect playing with more than three works particularly well with this Revolution hack, because there are more characters to go around. You’ve got new Heroes and their related characters, etc.

The simplest approach is just to go around the table exactly as you normally do. If you’ve got five people, for example, the first three are the Hero, Fallen and Pillar and the remaining two don’t have a role at the moment. When you play scenes, the scene-maker can decide to have them play other characters and assign the role that fits that character. So the Hero might make a scene talking to the Pillar and then have one of the “spare” players take on another Pillar in the scene, or play a rising Hero, for example. But only the players who were “officially” in those roles would be able to use the special powers, like the Fallen calling for consequences, etc.

Eventually everyone would play every role, but if you switched Heroes between rounds some players might never play particular Heroes, but I think the payoff of playing some epic Downfall would be worth it.

That’s The Hat’s Job

And yeah, Caroline, the creator of Downfall, is doing a Kickstarter right now for an entirely different game, Fedora Noir. Go back it!

And of course since I’m hacking Downfall to have more than one character have the same role, I should make a joke about doing the same with Fedora Noir just so I can say the Detective wears many Hats…

Ben Robbins | July 29th, 2021 | , | 1 comment