THE JOURNEY TO THE LOST MARCHES – PART I
I’m trying something that is a little different and for some reason, I’m anxious about it. I’m composing this in a dedicated writing app (Scrivener), before posting to the site. So if you’re reading this, it means that I’ve made it that far! In fact, I generated enough content for two distinct posts!
In 2014, I circled back around to running D&D style games after a 17 year exploration of the World of Darkness/White-Wolf and Medieval reenactment. By then I was a little burnt out from the horrors that live at the edge of your vision, and I needed a change. This lead to several years of running back to back, published material in both Pathfinder and then later 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.
The tail end of 2014 was spent with a focus on the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path (written for Pathfinder). While we all seemed to love the material, as time ran on, the Pathfinder rule-set proved to be overly cumbersome.
2015 was the year that I started to run Princes of the Apocalypse with a group that we converted over from Pathfinder. It was also the year that our son was born, and that saw a lot of change in our gaming group. While it wasn’t a complete flop, I found myself to be more than a little jaded as we ended that game.
2016 brought our group around to the Tyranny of Dragons storyline. As a DM, this was the storyline that reignited my love for D&D and sold me on returning to the D&D fold. The rules were light enough to be taught without a ton or debate and arguing. The storyline was familiar and compelling, and the level of tips and support that could be found on the net surpassed anything that I saw in my White-Wolf days. Yes, there were some problems that occurred within the party of players toward the end, but it was less than we had seen in my prior game.
2017 brought the players back to Ravenloft in the form of the Curse of Strahd. Out of all of my gaming experiences in the past five years, this one best fit the opening line from a Tale of Two Cities “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Player feedback was all over the place, but generally at the extremes of love and hate. A third of the players elected to leave the game around the 40-50% mark, as the content and theme wasn’t what they wished to play. I ran it as a grim, and at times, nearly hopeless setting. On some twisted level, I consider the ability to capture this feeling to be a milestone level achievement. The players ‘felt’ the despair of their characters. The felt that they had little agency (the ability to affect the story or setting), and that weighed on their characters. The pyrrhic victory over Strahd, where one character assumed his mantel as the Dark Lord of Barovia cause one of the players to yell “This is Bullshit!” yet it clearly showed that the situation could be changed.
While I have some pride in the way that the Curse of Strahd played out, I did consider there to be some ‘lessons learned’ from the player departures near the midway point. While the majority of the players, and myself, understood that the theme of that game was to be fairly dark and heavy, where that fit into other’s perspectives wasn’t clear enough. Likewise, the degree of (perceived) player agency is highly subjective and varies considerably from one player to another. So much so, this game caused a 20+ year gaming veteran to recuse himself (in part due to a lack of agency in the game), but that saw a wallflower role-player step up and take a vocal pseudo-leadership role in the party as they felt that their character could make the difference in Barovia.
In parallel to the Curse of Strahd, I began to look into creating a ‘homebrew’ setting. Homebrew is the new and catchy term used to refer to a rule or setting that you’ve made or modified instead of the settings that are published by the big companies. This was in part due to a roleplaying series on youtube by Matt Colville (or as my wife calls him ‘The guy who talks too fast’), and in part due to the above issues that I saw unfolding in the Curse of Strahd.
To get to the point where I was seriously considering my own setting, I needed a retrospective look onto what I most fondly remembered from my earliest days of running D&D in the 90’s. I took that and I framed it within the context of “What can I make that would be fun enough that it’s worth that much effort over using a published game?”. That was a tough question to answer because as a DM you can (and are encouraged) to change as much or as little of published material as you would like. After considerable navel gazing and contemplation I finally admitted why I needed to try my own setting (again). As a DM, I am both a completionist and a worldbuilder. I compulsively must know what is over every hill, and what is behind every door in the games that I run. Those answer needs to be rationale, and fit within the context of the situation.
I also saw how it could help my address future issues with the level of agency that the players felt in my games. For right or wrong, I felt that to lessen the despair of the Curse of Strahd would be a disservice to those who were enjoying the game. I felt that The Lost Marches would be different, not because they would strictly speaking be more friendly, but because the world was less of a railroad (a path or track that brings you in a specific direction with little or no deviation) and more of an open sandbox (an open area where you can build what you want).
A friend who recently dipped his toe into DMing asked me “Where do you find the time to run so many games?”, because it is a serious investment of energy. At times I spend more time setting up a session than we do playing it. I feel that quality DMing is more of a commitment today than in prior years. The bar is set even higher now due to the availability of quality content that you can find on-line, professionally rendered maps, and virtual tabletops with lighting effects. If you buy into it, it’s a far cry from the days of a black and white hex map.
2018 (sort of?)
To bring this back to my intended point, this is the background to why my next post will be reviewing some of the goals and interests that my Lost Marches players have recently provided me as feedback. The characters within The Lost Marches have crossed into the infamous level 6. They are now solidly into the second tier of D&D play, that of Heroes of the Realm. They have the raw power needed to influence events on a regional level, in a sandbox world.