A former player in my Mountainlands game asked me some questions to help him set up his own similar game.
The house rules and player guide — The Mountain Lands Campaign – player briefing v5
The player-created map as it stood after the 19 sessions we played — player_map_2015_04_06
Compared to more open styles / systems (where you adapt the game for players, improvise or fudge dice rolls) west marches seems more inflexible. Did you stick to this West Marches style or where you flexible behind the GM screen?
I didn’t fudge a single roll. But, then, I never do. I don’t remember the last time I fudged a roll in any game. I have a visceral disgust for the practice that is somewhat beyond reason.
IIRC I rolled everything in the open, only using the screen to hide maps etc (and as a reference). Possibly I had some hidden rolls, e.g. Perception, though 5e uses a static Passive Perception for most things.
Much of the world was, of course, made up on the spot, but I wasn’t consciously adapting things to the current player group. The world was as it was, and I inflicted it on you regardless.
While playing I found there was a resource scarcity compared with traditional D&D, was this a conscious choice?
No, but it’s my inclination. I don’t tend to “see” treasures when I imagine game worlds. I’ve probably not run enough games that really need them.
Magical objects seemed often to be sinister (often a mixed blessing) and rare. (which I really liked)
This was deliberate. I was influenced by Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon World, which encourage this as a default.
What level of material rewards did you have in mind while planning? Where you looking for the classic D&D material progression, or something more realistic?
Ostensibly, I was aiming for the 5e model. I had treasure-value-by-monster-CR table that approximated the by-character-tier one in the DMG, just at finer granularity (so you could have a CR 1 hoard, not just a CR 1-4 hoard). I don’t remember what, if anything, I had as a model for more significant magic items.
Had you mapped, stated and designed the “dungeons” or “locations” to the same degree as your regions?
Mixed. I used some moderately-detailed maps, but some were more vaguely described and made up on the fly. Nothing, of course, in any of my prep, came close to the norm for published modules. That way lies madness.
Probably my key prep-effort-management strategy was getting players to tell me their objective when they scheduled the session. E.g. when your group said they were going to the castle in the Haunted Woods, I would have fleshed that out some more.
I used some third-party blank maps. I keyed up several of Dyson Logos’ ones for specific dungeons, and had unused ones printed ready in case I wanted to start a large dungeon on the fly.
I recently played Torchbearer; was it an influence on you for the game? I found some similarities in style you created such as the rate of financial and exploration progression.
Not knowingly. I’d have played Torchbearer once before running Mountainlands, but I didn’t particularly like it. I suspect the resemblance is through common ancestors in OD&D and the OSR.
Using a pool of players self scheduling there own games, is the core idea behind West marches. How did it work in your experience? Any tips?
It worked ok. Better than GM scheduling would have been? I don’t know. I remember that Ben Robbins was very adamant that it was important for his game, but I don’t think he ever explained why.
The game ended when no-one scheduled another session. I think I could have rekindled interest by scheduling a session or two myself, but by that point I was bored and wanted to move on to other things.
I have a regular group where I live. Would you imagine West marches still functions within one group?
It would of course “work” on a basic level, and you’d avoid some of the challenges around session length and getting back to town. But I’d call the result simply a “sandbox” game; I don’t think I say “West Marches-style” unless you had an open table. And I’d be inclined, at that point, to do much more customisation of prep to active PCs – once you have a fixed party, there’s not much reason not to.
Do you have any ideas about alternatives to full level restart on death ? I am a little concerned about mixed party groups with large level gaps.
Seeing how mixed-level parties worked was a large contributor to the fun for me. As it happened, this didn’t seem to be a problem.
I did have some plans in place for dealing with very large gaps:
- Once you got a PC to 5th level, you were allowed to run a second one in parallel.
- I was thinking to introduce a second starting point, deeper in the wilderness, that 5th+ -level characters could choose instead of the town. This might have shaped play towards two parallel-but-overlapping games.
You could of course have a level floor system, either per-player (e.g. once you get a PC to 4th level, all your new PCs start at 2nd) or per-group (e.g. once you spend 1000gp to upgrade the inn, all new PCs start at 2nd).
Also remember that in 5e level 1 is over very quickly, especially if the opposition is above CR 1 and you’re getting a full xp share.
All in all did you enjoy the game?
Yes, a lot. It was effortful to set up, but very easy and rewarding to GM. Disclaiming responsiblity for making things interesting, and instead just running the world, made GMing a lot less stressful than my norm.
But after 19 sessions (over about four months) I was bored of it, and wanted to move on.
What would you do differently if you had a second shot?
If I were doing a literal “Mountainlands II”, I would think about:
- Using something simpler than 5e, but with its modern design sensibilities. My first thought would be one of the “microlite” 5e’s that are out there now.
- Allowing multiple PCs per player. I don’t see any reason to restrict this, not least because there are strong incentives to play the same PC repeatedly (advancement).
- Maybe putting the hometown in the centre of the map so that there were more immediate options for adventure. I’d make some of them scale in danger more rapidly (e.g. you might go very quickly into a CR 5 region).