23
Dec
09

Why a West Marches Campaign Needs a Town (Moving Into the Dungeon, Pt. 1)

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.

The town of Belltower, unfortunately no longer a boring place where nothing ever happens

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.


17 Responses to “Why a West Marches Campaign Needs a Town (Moving Into the Dungeon, Pt. 1)”


  1. December 24, 2009 at 1:25 am

    First, very simply, even if things didn’t happen in town, those players that aren’t present simply aren’t there. They could be out walking around, sleeping, they temporarily went into the boring civilization – but the bottom line is that they aren’t there. At all. That makes it easier for all of us to deal with things.

    To your second point, about long absent players having problems getting back into the game, I have been trying as hard as I can to encourage between-game communications, either using the wiki or email list. I try to encourage the players to move forward and there is a core group that wants to get going now, now now… and another group that doesn’t mind the slower starts or the back and forth that seems to take forever. It takes time and sometimes I just have to accept that the players are going to waste a lot of time at times.

  2. December 24, 2009 at 2:31 am

    Eric is exceedingly good at posting [session summaries of the Glantri campaign] (something that the West Marches says should be left to the players, interestingly) and yet I frequently show up after missing a few games and am like “So, where are we and what’s been happening?” Possibly this is because I am a known asshole – the fact I am not dissuaded by the evident pain this behavior causes Eric supports this theory. I also do enjoy the back and forth; if people are talking about the game, I figure that’s part of playing it.

    I should clarify, though, that in this discussion I’m conflating “town” and “home base”. I’m not actually adverse to urban adventure – I introduced the Nameless City specifically in hopes of attracting some block-crawl play, and set it in Limbo so that the PCs could light it on fire and raise all the corpses as a zombie army without having to worry about repercussions on the rest of the campaign. What happened in the White Sandbox (to get a few posts ahead of myself) that’s been challenging is that Belltower went from being both town and home base, to a place where things did happen but only in response to the PCs’ carousing, to place where, just like in the dungeon, they might be attacked without warning. Since then we’ve seen a little town adventuring in Belltower, but the players immediately rejected it as home base and a few sessions later moved towards making a cleared area of the dungeon the new home base, which is problematic. (It might have been awesome if we’d done a full reversal, where the PCs returned to their safe caves to lick the wounds they’d acquired during a dangerous trip to human-occupied territory, but folks are still too interested in exploring the Caverns of Thracia for them to be designated a safe zone).

  3. 3 James
    December 24, 2009 at 3:33 am

    “yet I frequently show up after missing a few games and am like “So, where are we and what’s been happening?” Possibly this is because I am a known asshole”

    I may share your affliction, but my rule is that if a Dungeons & Dragons backstory cannot be adequately summarized in twenty-five words or less, my interest decreases proportionately.

    The current state of the White Sandbox game seems to be: “A group loyal to the lost prince have killed a cult leader and set up shop in the dungeon. Allies: Patriarch Zekon and dwarves.” For me, 25 words is the point of diminishing returns. Point me in the right direction and give me a shove; if I have to make a choice, give me 2-4 options.

    As a player, I would LOVE to show up at the table, and a fellow player says something like that. And then someone else says, “We’re doing (this concrete, limited-scope thing here) for (simple reason).” Unfortunately, in my experience we begin each session by spending 75 minutes evaluating a dozen options and sub-options. I don’t begrudge the more committed players from choosing their destiny: I just wish the process didn’t account for one-third to one-half of my own play time. (Maybe the first one to arrive, who played in the last session, gets carte blanche to set the agenda?)

    “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.””

    I guess I can’t imagine that this would ever really be a problem. It’s inconceivable that the GM would kill a PC off-stage; it’s also inconceivable that anyone really objects to the “hammer-space” unplayed characters wander off to between sessions.

    Broadly speaking, my trouble with the Town in the abstract is that it’s the focus of campaign play, as opposed to the dungeon-centric delve style of play. As noted earlier, I think never-ending campaign-style play is a poor fit for Dungeons & Dragons, but I’ll have to flesh that out some more.

  4. December 24, 2009 at 5:47 am

    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.

    Very true, Tavis. Town definitely serves as the bench.

    The same problem plagues superhero games (“hey, why didn’t Superman/the Avengers/Voltron show up and help with that alien invasion? Again?”)

  5. December 24, 2009 at 7:40 am

    I have nothing to add here except to say that I’m looking to your game(s) with great anticipation. I’m often tempted to flesh out the base town more, because I found a really slick map on the internet for it (full disclosure: there are two small dungeons there, one of which will be explored next session). But I’m worried about the dreaded town adventure.

    For Eric: the *only* way I was able to get players to write session summaries was with xp awards. 100xp a pop, but they have to be up to my (lax) standards.

  6. December 24, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Re: James’ totally legit complaint about dickering at the start of every session: you guys need to off-load that to the forum. I’d go so far to say that if you don’t have a goal *and* the minimum number of players, you don’t have quorum.

  7. December 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    James: “It’s inconceivable that the GM would kill a PC off-stage; it’s also inconceivable that anyone really objects to the “hammer-space” unplayed characters wander off to between sessions.”

    In a weekly game a not-uncommon solution to PCs whose players aren’t present is for the GM to run them as NPCs accompanying the party, which poses a dilemma: either they risk being killed or they have plot immunity to the hardships they’d be vulnerable to if their player was there. I don’t normally have any objection to the bench existing in <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_satchel"%5Bhammer-space%5D (had to look that one up!), but when the action impinges on the mental territory where the inactive PCs are supposed to be it creates the same dilemma for me relating to risk as the PCs-turned-NPCs-following-the-party.

    cr0m: “I’d go so far to say that if you don’t have a goal *and* the minimum number of players, you don’t have quorum.”

    That is indeed canonical West Marches advice, which we have ignored. (It’s interesting to go back and re-read the original posts and see how often that’s true!) I think I’ll experiment with letting the player who picks the date say “this goal is what we’re doing if you sign up for this date.” I haven’t been entirely happy with doing carousing online, so maybe moving the decision-making shambolic discussion to the forum will clear up more time for shaggy-dog stories of eating eagle dung and the like.

  8. December 24, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    “In a weekly game a not-uncommon solution to PCs whose players aren’t present is for the GM to run them as NPCs accompanying the party”

    tavis, I’ve never actually experienced this from beginning to end. I have run a character as an NPC if a player had to leave early, but that is the extreme exception, not the rule, and I have played them as fair as I could during. Usually this is the journey back home phase for the game, so unless they stupidly encountered and fought a “dragon in the backyard”, I feel confident that they’ll be OK.

    “For Eric: the *only* way I was able to get players to write session summaries was with xp awards. 100xp a pop, but they have to be up to my (lax) standards.”

    crom, I went back and forth on this myself and decided to explore a different mechanic – those who actually do writeups will find benefits beyond mechanical XP. They’ll be known better because their stories are told around town, they may receive more hooks and/or benefits from their fame (or infamy :>) – this encourages those who want to really get into writing to do it, but doesn’t punish those who have issues writing – my wife who does the solo games is a perfect example of how that approach would punish her.

    “I haven’t been entirely happy with doing carousing online”

    In my West Marches style tabletop game, I’ve gotten to allow purchasing of mundane items, performance of mundane things online in the email list. It has gone fairly well. This second year of our campaign, I’m going to encourage more goal setting.

    “shaggy-dog stories of eating eagle dung and the like.”

    Hard core!

    “the action impinges on the mental territory”

    I had this happen once – the players fought a group of the Damned at the gates of town. It was still easy to leave the non-present PCs in their nebulous status. The combat was 1:1 scale and didn’t affect the town as a whole during the battle. My “aftermath” status update to the players next game did let the know changes had happened in town, but that’s it.

  9. December 24, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    I’m reasonably certain that not one of my dozen-or-more players actually reads my session summaries.

    In a previous campaign, I observed that one of my players only read the summaries to find the bits his character was involved in and see his character’s name, so I tried to make the Red Box summaries detailed enough that I could actually point to things each character did. That doesn’t seem to be a draw for anyone in this group, though, so maybe my prior experience was an abberation.

    Generally speaking, players seem to fall into two categories on this issue. A few players are genuinely interested in the setting and the campaign background, and they’ll siphon up every bit of information you put in front of them. On the other hand, most players haven’t the slightest interest in anything other than what’s currently happening at the table, and they wouldn’t even read a 25-word summary of the last session if the summary was made of delicious candy.

  10. December 24, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    @Chgowiz, et al: I have tried to sell my players on the Table of Terrible Shit that Happens to PCs Who Stay in the Dungeon Between Sessions, but their reaction has been “why on earth would you want that?” and I’ve had a hard time coming up with a response. Yes, it helps my immersion to have PCs off-camera in town, rather than disappearing while underground. And it also helps prevent different groups from running into each other in the same dungeon, but compared to the awfulness of killing a PC off-camera in game as tough as B/X D&D, it’s really difficult to justify. (By the way: love your blog!)

    I’m still looking for something more moderate. The last 2 out of three sessions ended with the PCs camping out in the dungeon, and with our normal player churn, that meant 3-4 PCs disappeared during the night (from a locked area besieged by cultists). Not very satisfying for me. And it really complicates the xp issue. Does a PCs who was present for session 2 get xp? Or just when he makes it back to town? It seems unfair that the other PCs had to make their way home past wandering monsters and wilderness encounters to earn their xp, but yours just teleported home because you couldn’t make the session.

    Re: xp for session summaries… I view xp as the ultimate carrot, especially in a game where advancement is as slow as mine. On the one hand, it’s the one thing every player lusts after, but on the other, the chances of the PC surviving to use it are so minimal that it’s like a license to print money! My players wanted the reward to be in gold. :)

  11. December 27, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    crom said: I have tried to sell my players on the Table of Terrible Shit that Happens to PCs Who Stay in the Dungeon Between Sessions, but their reaction has been “why on earth would you want that?” and I’ve had a hard time coming up with a response.

    I didn’t sell my players on that, I stated it was a requirement for the campaign. This prevents party splits, it prevents issues with the group being in the dungeon and someone else showing up for the next game. There is a small chance that members will survive. It’s their choice.

    As far as XP, I track who was in the battle. They get the XP for that battle and treasure obtained from that group of monsters (if any). It’s more work on my part, but that’s the way it has to be.

    I went back and forth on the XP for summaries and decided to go with in game mechanics. It might result in gold/XP, that’s up to them to try. :)

    @eric – I encourage player summaries for several reasons – so that the players have a reliable source of information – so that it encourages parties to share something among each other and for the continuation of the campaign legacy and knowledge through the years. I intend on keeping the summaries and wiki information and it will become a body of lore that I’d like to see accumulate, much like Blackmoor or Greyhawk. Call it a small conceit, but there it is.

  12. December 29, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Chgowiz, you’re right, I ought to just make it a requirement, or get used to dealing with PCs slipping away between sessions. One of the fairly legitimate complaints the players had about using such a table is that they were not making much progress into the dungeon.

    On the one hand, at least some of this was a function of their continually taking the same deadly route (the dreaded rope bridge), so I put that squarely on their own heads. On the other hand, my games are weeknights, start at 7pm, and VERY social, so we usually don’t get going until 8pm, and quit at 11pm at the latest. So normally our sessions are 2-3 hours of play. Which is pretty darn short, now that I think about it.

    A possible compromise is to allow parties to camp the dungeon, but require a roll on the table of random death for any PCs whose players don’t show up to the next session.

    I’m a softy, I know.

  13. 13 chgowiz
    December 30, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    @crom – everyone has to do what they thing is right for their campaign – I try to keep advancement moving forward with 100XP per HD in my AD&D game. So who’s the softie? ;)

    I try to limit the social time which is why after about 15 min, I start moving the game forward.

    As far as making progress, that’s up to them – my players have cleared out first levels in dungeons even with going back to town. Problem is, they’ve cycled through 3 different dungeons, they are about 50% done with 2nd level on one, and have cleared out 1st level on the others. They keep going back and the damn things keep changing! :)

  14. 14 Ginncrotz
    January 11, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    When I’m a player I frequently do the summaries, at least I have when playing the characters as glory hounds. My summaries played up my pivotal involvement in anything important, and played down his involvement in anything that went poorly.

    Other players laughed at this, but the DM didn’t get around to having townsfolk act like _my_ stories were true, and there aren’t “5 brave adventurers”, but “Ginncrotz and his backing band”.

    As far as letting folks camp in a dungeon in a westmarches-style game, the one I was involved in just said “if you end play in town you can join any new party you wish…if you end play outside town you can’t join another party until this group gets together again, anyone who can’t show for the next session gets to be unconscious, the other players can drag them off or leave them in place”. It worked pretty well. Once we had to end outside the town, and I happened to have tensors floating disc, so we threw folks onto it and barely made it out. They asked what we would have done if we didn’t have the disc “put you on litters and abandoned you to the monsters in the second encounter, we couldn’t have run fast enough dragging you deadbeats, but rest assured I would have told everyone in town how you died like heroes so it’s all good”. The didn’t miss a “second part” session after that.

    That seemed to work for us, but might not work for you (if you have a _real_ regular group they can “clear” more territory by not going back to town most sessions, and that reduces information flow, and makes groups more static).


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