The White Sandbox campaign has recently been playing out the implications of a shift away from a fundamental West Marshes tenet: the adventure is in the wilderness, not the town.
In gearing up to write about this, one thing I realized is that Ben Robbins’ excellent and influential posts never point out what I consider to be the main reason you need a town in a West Marches campaign: so that you can answer the question “What happened to the PCs of the players who aren’t present during this particular session?” with “They’re hanging out in town.” This might seem obvious, but I think it’s key to understanding what happened when I violated the “town=safe / wilderness=dangerous” separation.
When the last West Marches post advises “be careful not to change the focus to urban adventure instead of exploration”, it’s part of a discussion on motivation: “Once players start talking to town NPCs, they will have a perverse desire to stay in town and look for adventure there.” Since the rewards of the game are meant to come from ventures into the unknown, and the unifying principle for the party is the need to band together against the dangers lurking outside the boundary of civilization, giving the players an incentive to hang out in town works against the premise of the setting.
I don’t deny that this is important, but as far as I’m concerned the most pressing need to avoid having adventures take place in town is pointed out in Jeff Rients’ post about using West Marches methods in his Cinder sandbox: “My idea of a town adventure goes something like blah, blah, blah, there’s a fight, and then the town burns down“. A place that the PCs interact with during play is going to be changed as a result, often drastically and for the worse.
The social dynamics of a West Marches campaign demand that town be safe and unchanging. If the adventure is happening in town, it’s hard to explain why all the inactive characters who are supposed to be cooling their heels there wouldn’t join in the action. Part of why I want to keep these PCs offstage is laziness. As of last session, that’d be 32 NPCs for me to run: no thanks! But the more important part is that sooner or later I hope all of those players will rejoin the campaign and want to run their old PC again. The more the town becomes an unsafe environment, the more likely it becomes that I’d have to say “Sorry, you have to roll up a new character because your last one died during a session when you weren’t around.”
And if town is a place where nothing ever happens, it’s your one refuge against the intimidating accumulation of play history that James prepared to hurdle but smacked into nevertheless. We spend enough time each session with the PCs in Zolobachai’s wagon or the Bloody Traveler Cellar explaining to one another what happened on the last venture into the dungeon. We’d never get anything done if town adventures meant we first had to tell the returning players what happened to their unplayed characters since last time: how did we decide that they escaped the doom that the players brought upon the town that was the last known location of the inactive PCs, and what trail of bread crumbs led them through a string of burned-down taverns to the one that the party is currently using as the staging ground for the latest town-destroying adventure?
Unfortunately, much of this wisdom comes in retrospect. Later posts in this series will explain why I yielded to the lure of town adventure, and how I think this crossing the streams resulted in the players’ decision to move into the dungeon.