West marches has entered the modern parlance, calling into the mind images of vast wilderness, adventure, and a comfortable town growing over time.
I’ve been ruminating on my own “marches” game for well over a year, but that idea has grown in scope so much it not longer is simple a “west marches” style game. It’s a “gesamtkunstwek” – a ideal work of art. This is one part my attempt to reconcile the ideal, platonic form of a weird elf game, and one part what I can actually achieve as a garbage human.
For context, my main games are a stable weekly game with 4-5 players set in Planescape that has been a love letter to Dungeons and Dragons. These players have gone from Birthright to Mystara, from Athas to Faerun. They have gotten a guided tour of the tomb of horrors, sailed the astral sea on a Spelljammer, met Iggwilv, bixby, Mordekainen, and Melf, been mazed by the lady on purpose, and more. to say that I have ran dnd is a bit of an understatement, and this game will soon end in a spectacular way that I will be proud of…but I am also done running my game in other people’s worlds, and so I made sure to run one in ALL of them.
My other game is a rotating series of one shot adventures for brand new players called “dnd 101.” I love running games for people who have never played, and I love seeing them engage in a way that is just totally different than veterans. There are no builds, or meta knowledge – it’s pure immersion and fantasy! This is the type of game I want to run, and I want to tailor the game to make it happen the best I can.
Along the way I’ve learned about the OSR style that I love, developed my own sense of what I want in a game and how to achieve it, expanded my own list of inspirations to include a broader series of topics, and now return to a sort of synthesis of ideas from my past and now.
I would not recommend following this process if your goal is to run a fun game each week in a sandbox. This is a mad project and I will surely fail. My only hope is that I fail in a great way!
Worldbuilding? In MY Elf Games?
First, this is an entirely original world of my own making. I know that players often do not care about this stuff, and I won’t be upset if they don’t. One can enjoy an Opera without reading the libretto. If you want to save yourself several hours of work, just grab a setting you like and use that! Eberron is fun, and so is Yoon-Suin.
Let me just save a new DM some trouble and be blunt: Players don’t give a shit about 90% of the intriguing lore you write unless it is directly related to game. Do not do what I am describing here unless you just want to do it for fun!
Because I Want It
I am making this world because that is my first passion and something I enjoy doing. I’ve got close to a thousand notes on worlds and games that never came to be that I will mine and reuse for this, but instead of writing them as facts, I will write them into encounter tables and charts. Further, nothing in this setting will be written in an authoritative voice – it’s all half truths, rumors, and myths until the players discover it and share it with others.
A Whole New World
Second, I am making this world myself so it can be interesting without any baggage. No player can walk in knowing the lore or details and so can (hopefully) experience it as a fresh faced adventurer for the first time. This does present an interesting challenge however.
The need for world-building grows exponentially the more you deviate from a standard genre.
So the more I deviate from stock fantasy tropes, the more burden of knowledge on the players. But the more I cleave to stock tropes, the more assumptions and lack of engagement I’ll see. My guiding light on this is the media that inspires me, like Morrowind, Kill Six Billion Demons, or the Malazan series, which are dense and rewarding to learn about, but can be read or played with no greater depth and still appreciated. This might be a little off putting for people just wanting to be a human fighter, but that’s ok as long as the game doesn’t punish you for not caring about “muh lore.”
Keeping the Goal in Mind
third, All the worldbuilding should serve the original goal: convergent storytelling that exploits modern player’s assumptions about a central plot being a conceit to the game. There isn’t, but one will emerge as we play that will be tied to all the other fragments and events from the game. Currently that means using some historic figure (or figures…) that was a catalyst or cause for most events before.
so in summary, I want to make a immersive world that can woven into my charts and tables without needing a literal encyclopedia, where there is no single authoritative voice other than the players themselves. Players will be rewarded for exploring and discovering, but don’t need to engage with the game at this level if they don’t want to. All of this will serve to build emergent stories directed by the players that can all converge on a single story beat.
Crafting the Broken History
In the previous article on Convergent storytelling, I talked about the process I was going to use to generate the fragments I need to seed the world with details. It started with writing a few stories, the breaking them apart. As I started that process, I decided to expand and include a general sense of history and mythology as well. I figured this gave me a better scope of the story and lets me make it more consistent when it comes up.
The first three parts of this are hidden knowledge that only supernatural forces would even begin to understand.
- There was once Many worlds arranged in tension and unity
Planescape, the great wheel. This game is set metaphorically “after” dnd for me personally, and I thought it was a fun nod to my old game.
- Forces worked to warp this enantiomorphic reality into a stream of decoherence
Part of the lore of this setting is that the greet wheel was dissolved completely into decoherence. All ideas, people, everything that ever was and would be was ran together. It was total break in reality.
- From this being-void emerged Wills stronger than the warping, and in their minds they held Keys and Gates
This is me seeding ideas from my post here to explain some artifacts in the game, and one of the strong themes of the setting. Those with the will to make their own decisions can create their own worlds through their actions. Like most things I write, this is an extremely blunt metaphor for running your own game, but it also lets me give a cool background to powerful, game altering artifacts.
This is the point where any public knowledge of the player would begin.
- Then the formation of new worlds by Demurges
I have 4 major religious beliefs that are related to each other that all have a variation on the same creation myth or deviate from it in a meaningful way, so that is the point of beginning to all but the most informed supernatural forces.
- This is the story of one of those worlds
Basically, someone(s) with a strong Will used a Key to make a new world, and this is that world. What is beyond this one? To the people on it, nothing. There is planar magic that works because beyond this place is nothing but the warping currents of space, which twist meaning and dissolve reality…if the myths are to be believed.
- In the era of Myth,
this is where a few creation myths and faiths are going to be laid out in a format that players can use. Players who choose a particular faith will get more information about that them depending on which one they choose. There is the Crystal Lattice theory, the 7 Measures story, Litany of Tel Kairos, the Creator’s test, and a loosely aligned “there was no beginning” nature belief system. I’ll outline these on a later post.
The rest this remains to be written but will comprise everything from ancient mythology to current events.
These are largely agreed on by historians, but obviously aren’t 100% the truth. I imagine it will look something like this:
* But then,
* But then,
* And so it came to pass…
* The person known as …
* The Drums of war…
* And so,
* Recent history
the goal is to create a setting that is messy and with a lot of stuff going on so players can immediately engage.I think I will draw a lot of inspiration from Skerples on this one as long as he doesn’t mind me Skerping it.
Tomorrow, I want to show something more practical. I’ll share how I plan on mapping the world in a way that enables me to run games with minimal prep despite the density of information. After that, it’ll be time to nail down the history and start making some real contents by harvesting the twisted wreckage of all my failed creations.