Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Marching Back East: Lessons Learned from Running an Open Table Game

 

I was like you, once: naïve, directionless, wholly corporeal. Then, one fateful autumn evening, I dreamt of a towering white fortress.

The concept wasn't alien to me, "drop-in" and "rotating cast" being something that I've informally done in the past. Once I actually decided to do an intentional open table sandbox, however, and embrace it as a style rather than as a consequence of accursed schedules, my previous preconceptions of running a big game had been irreversibly shattered.
After getting some new, heavy-duty conceptions, I proceeded to have a pretty excellent time, lasting for well over a year of regular games, and the experience was as enlightening as it was entertaining. The game's tragic demise was caused by a combination of personal small-scale complications and impersonal global complications, but it was a rollercoaster ride throughout. 

With recent developments, I may have the chance to bring the game back to life (at a reduced, responsible, internet-reliant capacity). And since such a ritual requires the removal of significant refuse, both from my sanctorum and from my own mind, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share some of the lessons I've learned. 

The Obligatory Historical Preface

Surely you didn't expect me to get right to the point.
Based on my inadequate research¹, "West Marches" and "Open Table" are relatively recent terms, they're just coining something that's been around since the start. A weird little book, titled "Vol. 1: Men & Magic", provides some guidelines that include: 
Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts.
While it's possible that GMs were simply fucking amazing back in the 70's, the likelier conclusion (and the one backed up by people who were playing back then) is that these plethora players weren't all in the room at once. It was actually common for dedicated referees to have multiple parties running around, all adventuring in the same world at once. While the exact details and procedures of play varied greatly, the point is we've been doing this since the start.
 
I doubt anyone's shocked by this. Even with today's assumed mode of play of a single, consistent group, the idea of "what if more than one party" is approximately the second radical thought that any newly initiated GM has on their path of discovery; and any nerd (that has not yet been struck by the cruel lash of cynicism) can't help but be drawn in by such ideas. I can state this with some authority because I was, in fact, in several myself! 

The Folly of (Lawful Evil) Youth 

My first experience was a two-party system (not that one) back when I was still starting to get into the hobby. The owner of the city's longest standing and (at the time) least disreputable FLGS was running the campaign, the premise being that there are two parties - one good, one evil - operating on opposite sides of the realm, with each group's actions affecting the other's game. Between said owner being the GM of my first "real" D&D game, and the oh-so-enticing premise of being in the Cool Villain Gang, my starry-eyed larval self could hardly wait.

As you'll soon notice become a trend with these stories, though, the whole thing fell through pretty fast. While the setting had neat bits such as the classic "undead as industry" angle, the game was plagued with issues. Our "evil" was dull and primarily expressed via the sanctioned usage of communist skeletons, and like true villains the first thing we did was selflessly help desert farmers kill some big mean robots. Thanks to some poorly thought out homebrewing, combat was an utter slog; and the only reason we got anything done in a timely manner was our barbarian, who got a critical hit seemingly every other swing.
Meanwhile the Good party, consisting of the FLGS's munchkins and clowns, apparently got up to more evil than we ever did, including something so terrible it caused one of the players to quit, and they failed to gather again after their first game. 

The campaign ended unceremoniously on week three, with us listlessly preparing to go something, meet somewhere and do someone - the details as lost to time as the GM's enthusiasm was.    
I'm just saying I'd have run it a little differently, is all.  

This letdown of a game taught me a bad lesson: projects that involve more than one party are not worth the effort. This preconception, severely in need of a shattering, stuck with me for a long time. It also taught me some lessons about the people who were in that game, lessons that unfortunately stood the test of time; but that's a story for a different mercilessly unabridged post. 

It wasn't until a few years later that I had (slightly) better luck. 

Smarmy Greg, we hardly knew ye

Shadowrun was my first true love. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't like the ingeniously-advertised World's Greatest Roleplaying Game('s Predecessors); but even to this day something about the urban magic cyberpunk system and setting just resonates deeply with me. This is probably why it was the first system I GMed, a mountain that would have been hard to climb even if I hadn't chosen to run the fourth edition. But I was young and enthused, unaware of there being better editions (for my needs, y'nerds), and me and my friends still had a lot of fun in those early years, bumbling our way through a world of zany crime. 

It's hard to not have fun with it, at least until you have a sudden, high-speed impact with the rules.
Years later, I had read SR5e and was itching for some shadowrunnery again, but at this point I was fully aware of the hell that is trying to organize a group of people to regularly show up for something. It was then that I had the idea of running a more flexible campaign format. 

The premise was simple: The framing device was a single fixer, Smarmy Greg, would be providing runners with a variety of mostly-unrelated jobs. He and his colorful underlings would put out the call, and whoever was free that week would come along for the run. This way I get my regular game, and my friends need not inconvenience themselves with making up a new excuse every week. The setup is far from original, but I still take pride in thinking it up all on my own, this being when I hadn't started looking into TTRPG communities and such.

I had a lot of fun stuff in play - I embraced Discord as Medium, ascii maps to post in code blocks, characters with different "speech" patterns that used the various formatting features, and such fun stuff. Unfortunately, despite the flexibility of the format, I vastly overestimated how easy it would be to teach people the mess that is Shadowrun 5e quickly. Coupled with the (frankly disillusioning) unreliability of my friends, the whole thing died off within the first month or so, to be followed by few failed attempts at a revival. Another crushing disappointment, but at least I got some useful experience with preparing materials in a "looser" fashion, and some insights into preparing adventures for a group that I couldn't know the composition of.  
Not to mention my ascii mapping game was next level.

I've got a few other games I could mention, but these two were the biggest influences. I'm sure that you'd agree with me, at this point, that Time and Players are the two worst factors to afflict our hobby. But for my final attempt, I was going to try and include much, much more of both.

Finally, the point!

The handsome, free-version-of-inkarnate lookin' image from the beginning of the post is the player-facing map of Drake's Maw Valley, the location of my open table sandbox campaign entitled The Stained Fortress. A lot of the guidelines used in preparing and running it came from The Alexandrian's Manifesto on playing catch, as well some vague direction stolen from various existing modules. 

The game would be a true sandbox: A finite and clearly defined realm, big and varied, with many points of interest for players to interact with. Various factions act independently and change things over time, puzzles and treasure trails to organically lead players across the valley, and more dungeons than you could shake a stick +1 at. 

My then-recent discovery of OSR had given me a new appreciation for "rulings, knot rules" and a system where you could roll up new PCs quickly, so I opted for a hacked-together Basic/Expert and Labyrinth Lord; with the main changes being a slot-based inventory (because I wanted that part of the game to be meaningful while not being cumbersome) and a "Death Token" system² tied to XP (to soften the blow of losing a beloved PC). The other Big Thing was a loosely defined "unlock" system, where as players explored the valley, they'd meet new factions and groups, whose members might become new classes for future characters to embody. The system decided, I spent a solid three months preparing for this, with an amount of work and preparation that dwarfed all my previous games. 

When it was "ready", I started looking for players. This time, instead of limiting myself to cherry-picking from my dwindling circle of friends, I took it public. I told everyone about it, I set up a social media page for people to find; I even printed out several dozen 8-page booklets that I cut and stapled myself, and then distributed them around the local game stores. After two weeks of this, I finally ran the first game - at the very same FLGS from that first anecdote!
This was the hardest part by far.

How'd it go? 

Thanks to the magic of regular notekeeping, I can tell you that my player pool was about 30 people, with some of those being more regular than others. Over its duration, the campaign had 114 dead adventurers, almost 1000 dead monsters, ~400k XP of treasure looted, and to everyone's surprise the highest level character was (still is, technically) a Magic User. The deadliest monsters in the game were a group of kobolds who set up a tripwire, and a Roc that singlehandedly halved a sizeable warband of 7 PCs, 5 henchmen and a dozen mercenaries over an extended battle atop a titanic tree. 

My game was a success by all my standards, and we had at least one session a week. I ran it at the FLGS, as well as at my (and occasionally someone else's) home when a specific group of players wanted to get together for an adventure. And when I eventually took a month-long break to regenerate and prepare for the next "season" of game, things went awry; and the break continues to this day, no matter how well rested I might feel.  

So, now that I've so thoroughly convinced you that I for sure know what I'm talking about, let's get down to business. If you plan to one day run your own open table game, why not consider...

The Lessons that The Title Promised

If you're treating this like you would a typical recipe blog, this is the part where you stop scrolling.


The Most Important Thing is Prep

If I somehow haven't made it clear yet: I have never spent as much time prepping a campaign, not by a lightyear. 

I've nobody but myself to blame for this. It takes a special type of overambition to decide to run a big hexcrawl with a full-sized megadungeon in the middle of it. But even if I opted for only one of those, even at a smaller scale, I'd still have spent a ton of time on it. 

As long-time readers of the blog will know, I like doing prep work. Any resolute ritualist can tell you that good prep leads to good times. Thing is, a sandbox game is a black hole for prep work. You have over a hundred different points of interest and landmarks, each one of which you could keep adding more features or characters to; add to that a big fat megadungeon looming over the entire thing, along with infinite potential for giving background and connections to all these various pieces, and you can begin to fathom the abyss before you. 

The problem is, not doing prep is simply not an option, unless you're some sort of improv god. When you want to run a persistent, "mechanical" world for players to methodically discover and interact with, the seat of your pants are gonna be on fire by the end of your second game night. I also learned, however, that overpreparing has diminishing returns as well, and your game probably won't benefit that much from naming every gnoll in the forest. 

So, the main takeaway here should be to Prep Smart. Unless you're so comically cocksure of yourself to make your first GMing experience an open table sandbox, you should already have a pretty good idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are. Write down the details you're going to need, and don't spend too much time on something you know you'll handle on the spot. If you know that you need a detailed dungeon map and key to run a dungeon well, then concentrate your energy on making those sparkle. You're going to have a lot of work no matter what your strengths and weaknesses are, so you might as well do work that you're going to benefit from the most. 

What if they miss something?

Ultimately, some prep will be unused. Players miss passages, places, people, poleis, provinces, planets.  In my experience, out of five secrets to find on a given megadungeon floor, one to two will be found right off the bat, another one or two will be found on future passes or by especially dedicated adventurers, and the rest will probably never be found without help. Stuff that isn't hidden fares better, but even then there are no guarantees - Over the many dozens of games during my campaign, the small army of adventurers that passed through the eponymous Stained Fortress all somehow failed to actually open the front gate. 

It's not like they hadn't noticed it.
This is normal for this type of game. "Missable Content" might be a hot topic in video games, but it's par for the course the case of dungeon crawls. If anything, it actually makes the game more interesting - the possibility of something never being found only makes it more fun when it is, and finding a previously unnoticed secret while revisiting an area is a constant source of joy for players - as well as helping you get more mileage out of your non-linear dungeons (check the baseball enthusiast's guide to jaquaying for more on that).  

Prep on the fly

A common strategy is prepping "outwards" - if your party is going to be starting out at the town in the middle of the badlands, then you detail all the areas a few hexes out from town, the idea being that as parties venture out further and further you can continue to prepare a certain distance out in front of them. This is fine, but it shouldn't be your only prep if you want that filthy, filthy verisimilitude in your setting. 

You should still know what all the parts of your game are, where they are, and how they relate to each other. You don't have to write out all the geographical and political details of the distant Salamandrite Jungle at the start, but you should still know enough about it for when your players ask you about the origin of the weird halberd they just found, or when you need to figure out who'd be sending raiding parties after the archeologists - or, stars save you, if for their second venture they randomly decide to check out this distant jungle someone mentioned offhandedly. 

You're gonna need Rules and Procedures

If you expect your big fancy map to be a big fancy part of the game, then you're gonna need some rules for how to do it. All those often-glossed over rules about travel speeds and hireling wages might suddenly become one of your most referred-to pages.

Typically your first move is to make a couple maps: a player-facing Pretty Map that isn't necessarily 100% accurate, maybe a game-accurate blank-ish map to give to your players for them to fill in, and the most important one: the master map of the game world. 
Image cropped and slightly edited on the off chance my players actually read this blog, and get this far in. 
While you don't need to have a master map, there's a reason most people have one: nice hex maps (as opposed to the sinister square or treacherous triangle) provide us with easy-to-count distances in all directions, allow for more naturally shaped areas, and have a nice, round number of sides so they can interact in various ways with World's Greatest Roleplaying Die, the six sider. 

But our map doesn't do much by itself, and this is where our rules and procedures come in. Which rules and procedures? The ones that you decide are best for the type of game you want, of course. For example, I wanted to strike a balance between my valley feeling huge while still being reasonably traversable, so I adjusted travel speeds so that you could reach all but the most secluded locations in about 10 days on foot, or about a third of that on horseback. So a walking party can cover about 2-4 hexes a day, depending on the type of terrain, weather, their chosen rate of movement. Make sure you have this one in detail, since inconsistent travelling speeds are just bad for all involved.

I also introduced some rules for other parts of exploration I deemed important. Supplies were easy, one "unit" of water and food per day, with five of either taking up an inventory slot. I wanted rules for exploration, so I gave each PoI on the map a "findability" rating that players must roll over to locate the PoI of the hex they're in; Each subsequent search in the same location granted them a +1 to the roll, but they often couldn't know whether there even is a feature in a given hex (though some hexes, like the Fortress, had no roll required since the PoIs are impossible to miss). I also had evergreen hits such as weather tables, encounter tables, reaction rolls and so forth, but people have already talked at length about why those are so great.  

If this all sounds like too much (or not enough) procedure for you, great; it means you're thinking about how you'd run your own game. Your own game can and should be its own product. If you don't like how your system handles overland travel, change it. If you aren't interested in the type of gameplay derived from having a system that handles overland travel, minimize it to a single roll, or fewer. You're gonna be the one running this thing, so make the thing be fun for you; you can't expect players to have fun if you're not having any. 

YCNHAMCISTRANK

That's right, I said it.
On the underside of an aged beer coaster known as the AD&D DMG, Magic Missile-hating Sandtabler Gary Gygax infamously wrote: 
Game time is of utmost importance. Failure to keep careful track of time expenditure by player characters will result in many anomalies in the game. The stricture of time is what makes recovery of hit points meaningful. Likewise, the time spent adventuring in wilderness areas removes concerned characters from their bases of operations – be they rented chambers or battlemented strongholds. Certainly the most important time strictures pertains to the manufacturing of magic items, for during the period of such activity no adventuring can be done. Time is also considered in gaining levels and learning new languages and more. All of these demands upon game time force choices upon player characters and likewise number their days of game life…YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.
The last bit, that I affectionately refer to as The STRANK, is one of the most commonly maligned quotes from a book full of similarly dissed ideas. And while it does seem pretty pointless for the typical adventure of today, a lot of this advice suddenly makes a lot more sense when you're running this kind of game. 

I bring this quote up, not just to show you how cool my library up here is, but because I want to emphasize that this was likely the most important thing I learned during the campaign. And for just a few extra minutes of effort per game (and with TIME RECORDS that weren't even that STRICTly KEPT), the campaign become dramatically more interesting. How? 

For one, tracking the passage of time made resources a much bigger part of adventuring play. After I nailed down a good dungeon turn clock (I used a slightly modified version of this one), things like torches, ongoing spell effects, and more became essential parts of the experience rather than just occasionally remembered counters to tick down. 

It also turns the passage of time itself into a useable part of the game. Does a character want to do something that'll take a few ingame weeks? They can, but that means that while they're doing it, they won't be available for adventuring until it's done, a real week from now. This may sound like it'd make the game a drag, but it's not a problem when the player can have a new character ready by the time the rest of the party finishes shopping for supplies. Multiple character per player was common, in fact!

Another, much more fun bit is that one party's actions affect everyone "in real time". One of my favorite examples was that, at one of the heights of the game's popularity, someone essentially set off a bomb atop one of the highest mountain peaks in the valley, visible from basically anywhere in the thus-far explored areas. This meant that, for the next two weeks, a variety of other groups were doing a variety of other things - exploring, fighting, scaling the outside of the fortress - when they saw the explosion go off in the distance. Suddenly players are discussing why the bomb went off, some groups are considering going to investigate, and best of all, one of the witnessing groups actually had a player who was there for the explosion, playing a different character, sitting there with the biggest grin and looking at me in silence. 

Can you do all of this without the strength of STRANKing? Of course, if you feel that you can keep track of everything in a satisfying way; but letting the pen and paper do the remembering for you is a pretty good habit to get into, especially for games of this scale.

Light as a system, stiff as a book

This lesson is admittedly based on more than just my personal experience, but my own experience did confirm the thesis. There are two important elements, seemingly disparate but in truth joined at the hip: Lightness of game, and Heaviness of material. 

First, lightness. The type of system most conducive to sandboxy games is one that doesn't constrain players in their decision making. There's different types of "lightness" in systems, but the one we're specifically after is the one that minimizes complex, interlocking mechanics that create their own gameplay and reward loops. These are often in games that aim to emulate a specific genre of fiction, and reward players for pushing the narrative in the "right" direction. While there are many excellent games that do this, it's essentially at odds with the nature of the sandbox; a sandbox game aims to create interesting situations for players, and the rewards are the actual palpable in-universe rewards that players find. This is why something like Treasure XP is ideal for a sandbox game: it gives a clear goal and rewards players for accomplishing that goal, while in no way influencing how players will try to accomplish this goal. 
Acquiring giant piles of gold is its own reward.
The Heaviness is the prep we've already hammered on so much about. When we're creating a good sandbox setting, we want a ton of "game pieces" for players to interact with, at all scales: Monsters and traps, treasure and magic, NPCs and factions, even the laws of reality itself. With a good selection of all of these, we create locations and situations that our players can have fun interacting with. We cannot have swashbuckling adventure if we do not provide chandeliers to swing off of, and we cannot have an interesting dungeon to delve when it's a long series of featureless hallways with goblins in them. 

So, in a sandbox, gameplay benefits more from detailed fiction than from a detailed system. There still needs to be some amount of rules, because that's the player lens into the world - the system is there to help them understand how well they can fight the troll, how much of its loot they can carry, and how likely they are to traverse the pit trap in front of its lair.  But the rules that players interact with should be ones that explain their capabilities and inform their decisions, not ones that force specific methods of play and disincentivize others. Let players decide on their own goals and rewards, and you will quickly learn what you need to give them for a good evening of fun. 


It's gonna be a slow start

The party don't get started till someone drops a puppet.

I don't know what your situation is. You might have the benefits of a deep well to draw from, a massive group of friends to call on, and a reputation as the local legend, with adventures that everyone desperately wants to be in. If you're more like me, though - a beggar bereft of the ability to choose, a big fish in a dry pond, and a crowned basement king - you might have a hard time starting out. 

I didn't do a pamphlet campaign just because I'm eccentric; I was genuinely strapped for players at the time, with most of my once-trustworthy local friends being scattered by the winds of change. One of my nefarious ulterior motives for the campaign was to add some fresh blood into my pool of Good Players, and I succeeded. But befriending those people required finding them first. 

While this is one of those ethereal problems that depends entirely on your surroundings, the first advice I can give is to try and find the sweet spot for hype. You want to start advertising early, and pushing hard to get as many people as you can onboard, but you also want to start playing soon enough that all those people will still be interested. In today's nightmarish era of constant, unyielding distractions plaguing us from all sides, you can't hope for your potential players to just sit around indefinitely, patiently waiting for your game to start. 

Even with that initial push, though, I had a solid-but-modest turnout. The best thing that can happen to your game, and the one that will determine whether it really takes off, is positive word of mouth. Once players realize how much they enjoy the non-commitmental, easy-to-pick-up nature of the format, they're a lot likelier to tell their friends about it. This is also why I insist that it's critically important for your game to be in a system that's fast and easy to pick up and play. A big, crunchy, heavy game can be good fun, but as the late Smarmy Greg's failed venture taught us, buy-in for something "casual" goes out the window when players need several hours of homework just to start playing. 

Do not be discouraged by a slow start, though. Despite it being the oldest school around, the format is relatively "out there" to most of today's audiences, and they're gonna need a bit to warm up to it. Keep at it, show them a good time, and hopefully you'll have all the players you can handle.


The Most Important Thing is Flexibility

That's right, there can be two most important things. 

Once you actually start running the game, you'll truly understand the scope of the undertaking - and once players really catch on to how much freedom they have, there will be no hexagonal nook or cranny that will be safe from intrepid exploration. This is great! We want players to realize this, and once they do the game truly blooms. It's also when it becomes demanding to run. 

You're really in trouble once they internalize that they can just climb everything, all the time.
Your battered soul should already be well-accustomed to the infinite depth of freedom that players routinely plumb to torture you, but a true sandbox puts that into overdrive. Not being constrained by an overarching narrative, plus real permanence that will affect other people, makes the ideal breeding ground for shenanigans. 

Don't get me wrong, none of my players were genuinely disruptive, and even the worst offenders were just goobers and quickly brought into line by the presence of other people being there; but I cannot stress the sheer breadth of clownery I had to adjudicate. Fond memories and traumas include: 
  • Players leaving messages and setting traps for future groups 
  • Subversive attempts to instigate coups within factions in an attempt to get their gold
  • Spending over an hour inching back and forth in a secret chamber to figure out the precise "programming" of the stone guardian within 
  • Blowing holes in stone walls to create permanent shortcuts 
  • Finding another group's stash in the megadungeon and swapping out their Potion of Invisibility with a Potion of Blindness
  • Tearing down a small bridge and erecting a second "fake" bridge overnight for an ambush
  • Bringing a mule loaded with torches to throw down a gorge, to determine the layout and contents of its bottom
  • Attempts to game the system by dying to get free XP from death tokens (joke's on them, that behavior was intentional)
  • Stuffing a baby rust monster into a sack, planning to threaten a sentient iron construct with it
  • Using a powerful reality-altering artifact to try and steal a hat from an ogre
Now, I love that this kind of thing happened in my campaign; creative problem solving is my greatest joy in this hobby, and seeing people engage in it warms my hearts. But while I have the benefits of many years of gaming with weirdos and dealing with their insane demands, you might not be so fortunate. Always be prepared for anything, realize that nothing is written in stone, and learn to enjoy thinking on your feet. Remember: YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL SANDBOX CAMPAIGN IF FLEXIBILITY IS NOT KEPT.


Picking a direction

While freedom and openness is on the lid, one of the unifying features of all great sandboxes is the art of directing players. No, not that one. 
"Frankly, I'm starting to think that this train is going down a predetermined path." 
While being presented with free horizons and open skies is dandy and all, you don't plan a vacation by pulling out a globe, nor do you start walking in a random direction to see what happens. 

Direction is showing your players that there's a place to go, and that there's a reason to go there. Without any direction, the players' only option is blind wandering, hoping to bump into something interesting; and while that's always a viable option, making it the only option isn't exactly great gameplay. Players should set their own goals, but they need to know what their options are, first. 

Direction can take many forms, and variety is key. Things can be known about from the onset, they can be discovered incidentally, they can be implied via clues and puzzles, and so on. It can act as a reward, too, with things like treasure maps being a classic find in a treasure pile. While you should strive to have the mysterious "right" amount of direction, where players have enough choices to ponder between without getting overwhelming, err on the side of caution; a dearth of options is worse than players picking out their favorites of a bunch and forgetting the rest. 

How'd my campaign do it? First off, every group's adventure started off with a free roll on the "basic" rumor table, which was stocked with tidbits of varying truthfulness. Players could also find valley experts, who they could pay for a roll on that expert's unique table, which provided more useful and detailed information. Even without NPC help, just by standing at the mouth to the valley they could immediately see the Fortress towering in the distance, giving them both a natural starting point and a common point of orientation. A path leading there goes through an ancient forest, and there are many points of interest next to the beaten path which any even slightly curious players can discover. The fortress itself contains various maps, vantage points, and talkative NPCs that could provide further direction. Other locations were placed on, or near, the path between major landmarks, sometimes giving a clue to their location; for example, through the sounds of a great bell ringing, or the high concentration of unusual flowers. Wandering encounters can also be a valuable clue, with scavenging owlbears or gnoll hunting parties being a sign of a nearby den. 

A secondary layer of direction, more potent than the first, is the kind that implies content. Knowing about the existence of an ancient mine or spooky graveyard is one thing, hearing that it contains a massive diamond or an ancient hero's magic blade is a whole other story. A diverse array of desirable rewards to choose from adds depth to plans of where to go next; just make sure that it is diverse. Riches are great, everyone loves riches, but there's more to offer than just riches - magic items, valuable secrets, new contacts and allies, keys required to open something huge. Between these two types of info, you can easily see how planning becomes more intricate. "Do we go straight to the fungal cave to get that obelisk tome, or should we first go to the cursed grove to see if we can find the nightseer helmet, which might help us navigate the cave?


The Most Important Thing is Notekeeping

Alright. I'm just messin' with ya now, but keeping good notes really is crucial. 
Waiting until long after the game to write your notes is a good way to destroy what little joy life brings.
Once you start playing, you will rapidly learn to appreciate the benefits of proactive and effective notekeeping. When there's multiple groups of belligerent hellraisers regularly defacing your pristine setting, the pesky premise of perpetuating persistence requires you to keep track of the details. 

Simply put, you must keep notes. YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL etc, because you need to be able to carry the changes that happen from game to game forward, accurately. It's not a hard habit to form, especially if you learn how to do it efficiently. What type of notes to keep, however, is worth thinking about. 

As I see it, there's two forms of notekeeping: The stuff you write down during play, and the stuff you write down after the game. The former is perhaps most important, since that's when the information is the freshest. You should jot down any meaningful change that happens during the game - doors that were opened, treasure that was looted, creatures that were slain, and any other key details. Keep these brief, and confined to the important stuff. just your basic reminders of important info; you don't want to slow the game down. 

Once the dust has settled and you find yourself alone with your book, take 5-10 minutes to write down all the details you couldn't mid-game. This doesn't need to be an essay, just write down and edit what you need, as this is the information you'll reference when updating your existing materials and making prep in the future. Just try to do this as soon as it's possible, while it's still fresh in your mind - words cannot describe the frustration one feels when sitting down to Get Around To It Later, and then not being able to remember crucial details.  

Importantly, good prep and good notekeeping support each other. The more information you've already got available, the less you'll need to write down as notes when the players touch it. This is because notekeeping is the dark symmetry to prep. You writing down the details of an ancient temple, and you describing the ancient temple to the players - both happen in either format, only the order changes.

Enemy of the trees

I made a point of running my game using 100% physical media; all my maps, dungeon keys, tables, and everything else I had were printed out on crisp black and white. It was a bit more effort, but the advantages were many - I never had to worry about expensive, fragile and battery-reliant tools to run my game, I could fit my entire campaign in a stylish messenger bag, and anyone that saw me unload a wad of maps and tables behind my custom GM screen knew that I was not screwing around.  

Most importantly, having all of my materials be sheets of paper means that any information could be instantly highlighted, edited, crossed out, checked off or added to with the sword-defeating pen. Digital tools that let you do this exist, but I've yet to find a piece of software that has successfully matched the efficiency, flexibility and ease of use that scrawling information on dead wood provides. Of course, you might have a central digital document, as I do, and you'll probably want to update it with information from your paper docs (and then print out the newly updated information on a fresh, scrawling-ready sheet of paper), but the value of printed material remains.

The most important object in my bag was The Log, a little organizer book I pilfered from college years ago. Any information that wouldn't fit in the various information sheets, I'd write down in the log - List of attending players, start and finish dates for the adventure, total treasure accrued and monsters slain for XP calculation, abstract notes about when and where the players did something unusual (such as blowing up the top of a mountain), and much more. The campaign log doubles as a tearjerking memoir of what a great campaign it's been, and as an invaluable tool for keeping track of everything I'd need to keep track of. I strongly recommend getting one for yourself, if you're not unbudgingly determined to keep all your information locked away in a computer. 
Pretty sure this cheap organizer still cost more to make than the camera I took the photo with. 

Trips 'n' Ticks 

That's right, it's still not over. Here's some unsorted advice that didn't fit anywhere else, or justify its own header: 
  • You're gonna have a lot of different factions and ongoing events in your game, and they're gonna be rad, but tracking all of them right from the start is gonna be overwhelming. Instead, leave these elements "dormant" until your players first make contact with them. This way you save that processing power for only the actively relevant elements of the game. Similarly, feel free to put any factions that are completely out of focus "to sleep", leaving them to their nefarious machinations until they come up again.
  • Don't overdo it on the handouts. While every player loves/dreads getting stuff passed to them over the screen, you can't possibly know what they're going to find, or if they'll ever find it. If you're gonna make handouts, try to limit yourself to things that are "certain" - things like maps that players can always buy at town, for example - or else curb your bets by making it randomized; I had a little stack of treasure maps, and whenever players found one I'd give them one at random.
  • When assembling your "procedure" tables such as wandering monsters or weather tables, leave an empty spot or two. It's easy to reroll if you land on an empty, and you never know what nonsense your players might incur on the game; Patrols of a new faction or stained glass rainclouds are amazing ideas to incorporate into these tables mid-play to really make it feel interactive.
  • Create room for expansion in your maps. I could write a whole post about how to map dungeons (and at this rate I probably will), but for now consider this: A Dungeon that is truly Mega will give players nightmares with its seemingly unending depth, and pulling that off ahead of time is tough. Leave some loose ends in your map, tricky tunnels and locked doors and whatnot. When you eventually feel inspiration and fill those in, it'll be easy to find a way to conveniently direct players down this previously unexplored route; There's no force on earth that'll stop players from chasing a goblin, coins pouring from a heavy sack over its shoulder as it runs down a hallway.
  • Sit down for a minute. Imagine what your players' side of the table looks like. Imagine all the things you'll be telling them. Is there something that'd make their life a lot easier? If you're anything like me you're gonna make a character sheet to fit your game, and I made a customized one that featured pip-based trackers for the most commonly moving parts of the inventory, specialized inventory slots for storing various small trinkets and items, and (later) a dedicated spot to write down your Cold Resistance, a stat that mattered during the terrible magic winter that wracked the valley. 
Also a logo for the campaign, cause I'm classy like that, but it also acted as a special tracker... 

It'll be awesome

What kind of long-winded, intimidating guide would this be without the feel-good ending?  

Having dug the tunnel, you can now see the light at the end of it. Once I truly started the game rolling, it was everything I hoped it would be - A regular cavalcade of excited faces, people contacting me to set up private games and organized delves, and a grand story of how an adventurer goldrush shook up the goings-on in a long-dormant magical valley. I've had many times in my life when I was running multiple campaigns, but for that magical year-and-a-bit, this was the only game that I could reasonably sustain, and frankly all the game I needed. I have nothing but fond memories, and I can only hope that running it in a strictly-online capacity will be half as successful as it was in person.

So, if you aspire to make your own open table endeavor, I hope that my experiences will contribute towards making your own game better. And if it works out, let me know on your next walk during a starry night - simply give a wink to the slightly greenish, flickering light directly above you. I'll see it. 

Or, leave a comment. Either's good. 

1: "West Marches", unless I'm missing something, originated as the name of the campaign detailed on the 2007 post on ars ludi. Open Table's been trickier to track down, and I can't definitively nail a specific source, but the oldest usage I've found was in a forum post from 2010 (that I, in my infinite talent and capability, promptly lost the link to). 

2: When PCs earned their first 1000, 3000, 6000 and 10000 XP, their character sheet would be marked with a Death Token (so a character that currently has 7k XP would have 3 tokens, and when they got another 3k they'd earn their final, fourth one). The Death Token does nothing for a living PC, but when they (invariably) died, their Death Tokens could be spent on the immediate next character that player creates. Each token could be used to either reroll 3 stats of their choice (including HP, rerolling one thing repeatedly is allowed), to give their character an extra 1500 XP to start, or the ability to play one of the advanced, non-core classes.

7 comments:

  1. This is an amazing account, and extremely useful. Thank you for writing it.

    I have a question: How do you justify the conceit of a sandbox with defined boundaries (however vast) in-world? Is it just a tacit meta-rule that no one will try to go "off map"? Or is there some game-world logic that prevents or discourages it?

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    1. Thank you for reading!

      It was really just a matter of agreement with the players. The premise was "adventurer gold rush", and the valley was the sole focus of that. I made this clear from the start: whenever I sat down newbies to explain the basics, one of the first lines I gave them was "This game takes place solely within the valley. If you leave the boundaries of the setting, your character has ceased being a part of this game until they come back."

      Nobody ever even questioned this technically-limited scope of the game. The setting felt huge, mysterious and hook-filled; and the materials never made detailed reference to external locations (if you tell your players about a cool faraway place you're just asking for trouble), so players never even thought about going somewhere else.

      As long you start them off with the right expectations, and make it clear that the entire point of your game is the part of the world that has a hex grid over it, you'll be golden.

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    2. Makes perfect sense. Thanks!

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  2. Incredibly inspiring for me. I once ran a huge open table game (Western themed) and I've been chasing the high ever since. Every once in a while I get discouraged and think I'll never pull it off again, but I know when I do it'll be worth it.

    Also, leaving notes in dungeons and stuff-that would be a dream come true for me to see a player do. I explore mines and caves as a hobby, and notes left by previous explorers is hugely helpful and has likely saved my life more than once. Plus, it's fun to see a creepy skull painted on a dark wall 1,000 feet underground.

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    1. Nice! Westerns and their kin are honestly underrepresented - I remember a play report (that of course I can't track down now) that turned 1e Boot Hill into a dramatic sandbox narrative experience, and it inspired me a lot in my own efforts.

      As for players leaving notes and that kind of thing: if you want them to do it, you could make a point of telling them that they can do it. I (foolishly) got the ball rolling in my game by setting up one or two "fake" player-made notes, which immediately made it clear to players that this is something they can do. Of course, it's still a matter of personality, and you need the right type of players, but once it gets started it's a riot. Just make sure that your notekeeping tech is able to handle it!

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  3. I swore I wouldn't do this sort of thing again after the last time, and here you are making me yearn for this sort of game all over again. :D Thanks for the write-up.

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  4. Not only does this post contain great advice for running a hexcrawl/open table, it has great advice for running a game *period*. Splendid post!

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