Thursday, 14 April 2016

Thoughts on a 5e Sandbox

So, over the past few months, I've been running 5e. And, much to my surprise, I've come to really enjoy the system.

When I first tried the playtest packet (way back when it was D&D Next) I wasn't a massive fan. Some of the mechanics were a little too clunky, and WotC couldn't seem to agree on which bits to keep at each change of the playtest rules, jumping from one good idea to a bunch of really terrible ones.

During development, they constantly claimed they were building a "modular" game, sort of like GURPS, which would please everyone - you could use the basic rules for a simple dungeon crawl game, then add the precise rules expansions you wanted to make the game exactly to your liking.

While that never panned out exactly, they did manage to make a system that seems to act as a nice common ground for many people - 3rd Edition fans like the simplified character building minigame, as well as the tactical opportunities presented by the game, while old-school fans like the reduced power level and simplified mechanics. Combined with the few "optional rules" in the DMG, and one gets the sense that this is an edition designed not so much as "modular", but simply very robust when it comes to house rules - one could easily use the bits and bobs they enjoyed from previous editions, combined with parts from others, without the whole thing toppling down in a horrific Franken-Heap.

And to me, that's pretty cool. Is it a perfect system? No, of course not. There's no such thing. But it's a good baseline to start on.

So, the game I've been running has been pretty awesome - most of the playtime has come from the consequences of running a 5e-ified (i.e. less randomly deadly and more tied-together) Death Frost Doom, along with hints of Vornheim and a few other sources.

However, the group is currently struggling to get together as regularly as they once managed, meaning most weeks anywhere between one and three players can't make it. This makes it pretty hard to keep any sort of long-term plot running smoothly.

So, once the last of the DFD game is done (a few more sessions should do it), I need a new plan.

Enter The West Marches.

For those of you who don't know, the West Marches game was set up in such a way as to be easy for players to drop in and out - every session was a self-contained adventure, with the group/groups varying in number, composition, even level depending on who can attend that day. Each game was arranged beforehand, with the players in attendance deciding beforehand where they will go, what their objective was for that session, etc. An entirely player-driven experience, with the DM acting solely as a neutral referee for the setting - the "plot" derives solely from the player's actions and decisions.

This means that the fact that some players are only able to make a handful of sessions isn't a huge deal - everyone who can make a session plans it out beforehand, and the players decide exactly what they are going to do, instead of having to catch up and figure out exactly where in the story they are.

As a DM, that means I will be preparing a whole bunch of dungeons, hexes with interesting contents, and fun things to do. I'll be posting things up as I go, looking at how 5e handles a player-driven hexcrawl, and the various synergies and pitfalls that come along with it.

Should be fun.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. My group and I did the D&D next playtest, sat around after every release to discuss (read argue) about how the system was developing, some of my group love complex rules, others looser story telling.

    D&D 5th has turned out very well in our collective opinions. We've had a couple of one-shot games using the system and they've been fun, but we haven't had the chance to play a long running campaign with it yet, our D&D 3.5 campaign only ended a few months back so that we could play something else, but when we get back to D&D we'll be using 5th.

    Unfortunately I'm kind of in the same situation as you, our group has been finding it increasingly harder to get together because of other commitments.

    West Marches is a great idea if you can get it to work. I was running a Pathfinder campaign a couple of years back in a home-brew setting using the West Marches.For a few sessions it was great, but then it started to drift away from the intended episodic style.

    The blame for that was on all of us really, players started to get more intrigued by the setting and wanted to explore and interact with the world around and I was coming up with more material, places and descriptions for them and it kind of became this monster that got out of control. The players weren't completing their quests and we needed everyone that was there previously to get them done, which defeats the purpose of the West Marches style game.

    So my bit of advice is the old K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid). Try to keep the players focused on the goal of the session, completing it and getting the hell back to town so that you have the West Marches set-up ready for the next time and whoever has turned up wants to play. I'd lost track of this campaign without even realising it, keep a tight hold on it's leash. And if the players start to want to investigate more of your world, tell them to note it down and investigate it next time, that's a whole other session of West Marches for you to run.