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.|
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.
The Folly of (Lawful Evil) Youth
|I'm just saying I'd have run it a little differently, is all.|
Smarmy Greg, we hardly knew ye
|It's hard to not have fun with it, at least until you have a sudden, high-speed impact with the rules.|
|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 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
What if they miss something?
Prep on the fly
You're gonna need Rules and ProceduresIf 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.
|Image cropped and slightly edited on the off chance my players actually read this blog, and get this far in.|
|That's right, I said it.|
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?
Light as a system, stiff as a book
It's gonna be a slow start
The Most Important Thing is FlexibilityThat's right, there can be two most important things.
|You're really in trouble once they internalize that they can just climb everything, all the time.|
- 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
Picking a direction
|"Frankly, I'm starting to think that this train is going down a predetermined path."|
The Most Important Thing is NotekeepingAlright. 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.|
Enemy of the trees
Trips 'n' Ticks
- 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.
It'll be awesomeWhat kind of long-winded, intimidating guide would this be without the feel-good ending?
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.