Popular Culture is interested in RPGs but doesn’t understand them. It knows it involves dice, paper, perhaps miniatures, and an ingenious director who infuses these artifacts with meaning and imagination. Sometimes play is depicted as a kind of extended play-acting but occasionally it’s depicted as an elaborate simulation, an imaginary world substantiated through shared commitment. This might explain the authority of the rules-master, the binders, and the militant obsession of its participants.
Ben Robbins’s West Marches suggested this dream could be realized, could include players both new and veteran, and could be popular. All at once.
Over six months, I scoured the internet for West Marches resources. Ultimately, I produced something that could be played with a rotating cast of players in a persistent world using D&D 5e rules. 5e was chosen for its popularity and perceived accessibility. I used strict GM-as-neutral-arbiter style play with little to no punch-pulling.
I’ll say something about my interest which is simple. I want more players to access emergent play. As the unique feature of games, emergence is very important to me. Here’s a short overview of my definition.
After nine sessions (four hours each) across twenty-something players, I can call the project a conditional failure. Very little emergent play manifested. As an experiment, it was a success since I’ve learned much in a controlled setting.
Goals and Techniques
- A hexcrawl. See here.
- Nearly consistent with 5e’s systems for inventory, overland travel, etc.
- Accessible to (completely) new players.
- Referee-style GM. No introducing/removing major game elements during play.
- Players coordinate/speculate about the game/make plans outside of the sessions.
- Players explore the freedom offered by this style of play.
- Stick to the 5e Core Rules.
What I Created
I spent at least thirty hours searching for resources, watching actual play, reading source material, and compiling it. The setting was a ruined empire on generic Scandinavian islands. I welcomed this genericness for its compatibility with DnD materials and as a blank canvass for the players.
- ~110 keyed hexes
- 16 dungeons (taken from thousands of one-page-dungeons)
- 8 random encounters for 12 regions
No one I talked to trusted 5e’s rules to handle something like this and I followed suggested modifications from people with actual play experience. Source.
- Players manage their own map with Miro.
- Clever “Very Random Encounters” engine where each encounter happens at an independently random time.
- Only meaningful rolls. Players always know the DC and the possible outcomes.
- Simplified inventory emphasizing food and water.
- Simplified travel rules (all modifiers to speed are ½ instead of 2/3rds, 17/19ths, etc.)
- XP rewards for proactive play.
- Blackball’s treasure.
Each game was played online using players from my 200+ person Meetup group. Since it was online, Meetup recruited people from across the US. I had little participation from recurring members of the Meetup group’s local members.
Play involved getting new players up to speed for an hour and then three hours of play. What was play? Mostly the players trying to agree on what to do. Aside from rules stuff, I spoke little.
Play was functional, consisting of D&D staples. Managing inventory, making roll after roll, asking questions, coordinating the party, talking to NPCs. Player’s flirted with the idea of taking bold risks or pushing the game’s systems to their limits but aside from some early experiments they stuck to typical procedural play.
The format of, “You have four hours to do whatever” was strictly adhered to. This openness was challenging for some, strenuous for most, and crippling for a few. But why wouldn’t it be? They shouldered many of the responsibilities traditionally hefted onto the game master. They managed pacing, balanced participation, and interest. If someone did anything irresponsible/fun, it risked hurting the other players’ play experience.
Was it fun for the players? I suspect about half the time. Most sessions had a “major conflict”, usually a desperate combat encounter they barely crawled their way out of. The only recurring feedback I ever got was, “Have you considered not sticking to the rules?”
- The Player Map. Players that got it tended to enjoy the game. Mapping out a journey to accomplish goals, when it was attempted, was challenging and satisfying. The hexcrawl systems (simplified travel, weather, inventory) enforced this and worked well.
- Independent Random Encounters led to many novel and interesting situations. Encounters could happen simultaneously, at any time of day, in numerous locations.
- There-and-back-again formula. The players had four hours (really 3) to go on an adventure and make it back in time. This was both salient and challenging.
What Didn’t Work
- Players struggled with every aspect of technology. Using a microphone, Discord, Google sheets, the dice roller, signing up on Meetup, all of it.
- Players didn’t use Discord to coordinate. The West Marches dream is predicated on players forming their own groups with plans. This never materialized.
- Players created characters using a program and, consequently, didn’t know their character’s abilities. The program hid the clunky mechanics of the game between a veneer of dress-up, hiding tactical decisions between dozens of cosmetic choices.
- Teaching New players. System-focused play is fundamentally incompatible with not knowing the rules. Using other RPGs, I’ve had wonderful one-shots with new players but DnD’s rules are too complicated and unintuitive for this to work well.
- XP rewards for proactive goal-oriented play. Players often ignored obvious opportunities to meet their goals (instead, focusing on trivia) but were disappointed with their lack of XP at the end of the session. Some players wondered why I didn’t just give them XP for showing up like their total responsibility should be to “play and have fun”.
What I learned
Setting Expectations is Hard
I could not convey what the game was to new players. I thought “persistent world” would be a salient concept. It was not. The community did very little to help new players (except for one noble soul) and most did little to ask questions, learn rules, etc.
The idea of expressive systems is foreign to popular culture. All felt the burden of understanding the game’s mechanics. Few appreciated the reciprocal freedom.
D&D is Complex
Players struggled with many aspects of D&D rules.
- Derived stats.
- Using the Player’s Handbook as reference.
- Optional classes and races. The encapsulation of “Core Rules”.
- How/Why rolls are called.
- D&D cares about treasure and combat fitness. Many characters had low “primary attributes,” so we had warriors hitting with a d4+0.
The dream of letting a large group of diverse players explore a persistent world is just that. Like it or not, players cannot fully participate in an RPG (or any game) without an understanding of the rules/play procedure.
On the other hand, Hexcrawls and persistent worlds can be fun and rewarding even in an “inappropriate system'' like 5e. Making random encounters independent of each other adds immensely to their variety.
Lastly, I’ll say something about my own enjoyment. Refereeing isn’t particularly challenging or creatively fulfilling so what did I expect? I was looking forward to seeing the players working together to bring an imagined world to life. Roleplaying is magic. But it’s a magic that is impossible without dogged critical imagination and deep empathy.
I gave my anonymous players freedom but no responsibility. In other words, what I created was a commodity. And magic cannot be commodified.