West Marches-style Sandbox Campaign

Earlier this week I read about Ben Robbins’ West Marches sandbox campaign, and I won’t lie, the concept and structure excited me.

I no longer live near my old group, in a way that makes tabletop gaming practical for me — especially when you realize I get up at silly o’clock (5:00 AM) for work each day.  Driving home from the game on a work night leaves me way too short on sleep the next day (and would require that I drive down on the day, cutting into my “doze on the bus” hour each morning).  Add in my family commitment time (Monday through Wednesday evening I hardly get home before 8:00 PM, and usually not before 7:30 PM Thursdays) it’s difficult to find time to even look for anyone more local for tabletop play.

Online, however, the audience is somewhat larger, and the tools have been getting much better in the last while.  I’ve played using a combination of IRC and maptools, and I’ve been hearing some very good things from people using google+ and related tools for gaming.  I’ve had some difficulty in the past with keeping a consistent group together, but Ben’s West Marches campaign actually accommodates that rather well.

I propose to run a sandbox campaign in a West Marches style.

  • There will be a ‘home base’ (town in a relatively safe area).
  • Other places will be identified, but they are “Over There”, a place to be from, not a place to be — at least for now, this could change if there is a large enough uptake.  I must admit, I like the idea of having a single setting with ‘multiple sandboxes’, each overseen by a different GM.
  • Each home base is (mostly) surrounded by dangerous places.  It is reasonably safe to travel along well-established routes between home bases (return to the Empire then head out to a different borderland, follow the Old Coast Road — long ago enchanted to prevent the nasties from interfering with travellers — and so on) but that’s boring because nothing adventure-worth ever happens there.  Sure, the road back to the Empire passes through some dangerous areas, but I’m willing to assume sufficiently guarded caravans and the like.  If you want to run home and hide, you can… but who would want to?
    • No, really.  That’s part of the whole point of this kind of campaign.  Almost nobody goes to the dangerous places, that’s what adventurers (i.e. PCs) do.  “Not realistic”, perhaps, but I can accept it.
  • The areas around the home base are generally progressively more dangerous the farther you get from a safe place… but not strictly so.  There are likely to be hotspots of danger (the “generally EL 3 woods” might have an EL 7 location in them that most adventurers would really rather avoid), and certain events may permanently or temporarily change the rating of an area, but in general the farther from base it is, the more dangerous it is.  Remember, “in general”; it’s entirely possible that the swamp just to the south is really, really dangerous but ‘relatively contained’ (the threat is there if you go and explore, but is unlikely to ‘come out’… without provocation).
  • PCs (and thus players) are expected to share information.  This includes sharing findings for the various areas they explore, it includes forming groups for their expeditions (and coordinating so they don’t overlap or interfere with each other), and so on.  Ideally this would only happen ‘in town’.  If a party does not return, nothing they learned should be available in town… except perhaps “that is more dangerous than we expected”.  I don’t see how this last point can be enforced, but I hope players would find it as fun and cooperate.

At this point I anticipate the following implementation.

  • D&D 3.5 core, as RAW as I can stand it… which, for this purpose, isn’t all that hard.
    • D&D 3.5 is one of the most readily versions available to my expected players.
    • I am more familiar with D&D 3.5 than other editions (or other games in general); I am more than passingly familiar with HERO System, for example, but don’t want to invest the time.
    • I am not prepared to learn D&D 4e for this campaign — it’s been suggested because it’s quicker and easier to manage, but that is not the case if I have to read and learn a new system.
    • I don’t want to get bogged down in polishing and fixing D&D 3.x.  That’s what Echelon is for, so as and when I find things I want done differently, I’ll do it in Echelon.  Core D&D 3.5 is reasonably resilient (barring its fundamental difficulties, which I am prepared to accept here), the real problem comes from the overload of splatbooks.
  • A campaign set up at Obsidian Portal (I’m a member there).  This is primarily for players to share information (about the setting and play events, and so on).  If I’m the only GM I may or may not use the GM-specific areas, but if there are multiple GMs I would either have the material moved to the GM-specific areas or create a ‘new campaign’ specifically for this information.
  • I have successfully used IRC and maptools in the past to run a game online.  I have also heard good thing about google+ hangouts and some related tools (possibly still maptools).  The exact tools used are not decided, since there are new options (google+ hangout) I haven’t tried.

I anticipate the following play effects.

  • Each player will have a stable of characters to draw on, depending on the need for any particular adventure.  These needs may vary by character ability (arcanist vs. skill monkey vs. melee brute) and level (the high-level character has no real gain from an adventure that’s “too easy”, better to send a character better-suited).
    • I’m not sure how this will play out, I’m mildly concerned about hand-me-downs), among other things (that I haven’t considered yet).
  • At the end of each session, characters “return to town”.  I considered adding the rider “unless something prevents them”, but short of GM fiat or the like I haven’t really been able to come up with a non-TPK scenario where at least one character cannot return to town.  No experience or treasure are gained from off-stage actions — if you were about to run into a hill giant, you managed to evade the encounter, trick him, or buy him off, if you ran into a couple of goblins you killed them and moved on.
    • I don’t want this to become a ‘get out of fight free” card, though.  On the other hand, it’s just been pointed out that if I can’t trust my players, I’ve got bigger problems.  I agree, but it can happen that the group gets caught short.
  • Speaking of TPK, they should be possible, and indeed not even strenuously avoided.  It’s a dangerous place out there, which is why PCs are the only ones doing this.
  • Each adventure will likely have different characters and quite possibly different players.
  • Players are responsible for forming groups to explore various areas and arranging time with a GM to run the session, with sufficient lead time for the GM to prepare for the session.  If you’re going to see what everyone else missed in the local ruins, that might be canned up already, but if you’re going somewhere new the GM might have only a paragraph description of the place to start from.

I think I’d like to run a Microscope (incidentally also created by Ben Robbins) session to establish some baseline history for the setting.  At the least I’d like to identify major events so I’ve got a shape to work with in preparing materials, but it’s not entirely needed.  I do believe it would help provide for a richer environment, though.

I’ll be looking for players, potentially (and ideally, really) a rather large number of them.  For that matter, as this gets established I’d really love to find some like-minded GMs to help run things.  Anyone interested in signing up?


    • That’s a nifty thing — the individual sessions can be done on an almost pickup basis, as long as the material is prepared. I’m off work every other Monday, plus the weekends (weeknights are generally busy, except Friday — but RPG geeks are usually available for gaming Friday nights, right?) so once things get rolling, as long as people are available we should be able to do this almost any time, with whoever’s available. If this works as expected.

      The multiple GM idea could work too — collaborative setting development and play means we could reasonably have multiple groups in the sandbox at once. Schedule things so they don’t run over each other (crossovers sound like a fun idea, but difficult to work well) and it should be fine.

  1. Pingback: Running a “West Marches” Game Links and Resources | North of Nowhere

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  3. Hey Keith,

    Like this campaign idea. The only thing that I wonder about is the use of Microscope to create the history of the setting (although I do love Microscope and have yet to play it, so any excuse ultimately gets a pass in my book). I’ve always felt that one of the strengths of the “West Marches” is that the story emerges from game play, and is largely the story of adventurers claiming glory and treasure for themselves. I think this is part of the reason that Ben in his original post mentions the players keeping a map carved into the table in the tavern in town. Rather than the history/geography of the setting known prior to play, the history/geography is revealed through play. What do you think?

    • By running a Microscope session to start I can quickly get some general shape to the setting and some players with an idea of what went before. Just because it’s a sandbox doesn’t mean the players have to start almost completely ignorant of the world.

      However, you may be right. I don’t have to mix all the good ideas into one place, and ‘pure exploration’ is an important aspect of Ben’s West Marches campaign.

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