Gigantic eagles circle the bay, plucking seagulls clean from the sky, as the gangplank is run out from the Merchant Knave. You push your way past the rushing deckhands down to the complex network of piers and jetties stretching out from below the bluff, that spirals up to the height of the city. As you step down you can hear the hollering of people in the simple armour of guardsmen, calling out in a variety of languages, and in a few moments you find one shouting over the crowd in a language you understand:
“Welcome to Meadsbridge! While within the confines of the city you will abide by the following laws…”
It’s something I’ve considered doing for a while but I’ve never had the recruitment power for it, a world big enough, and so full of adventure that it could support multiple groups. A couple of years ago, before resolving to be a DM for hire, I watched a video about a particular style of gameplay, The West Marches that put better form to the idle thought, and now I have a way of reaching new players.
Adventurers are centred in a single area, a point of civilisation on the brink of wilderness, within which lies adventure. There can be dozens of players, all gathered in the city of Meadsbridge, talking, communicating, sharing what they’ve found, recruiting for expeditions in the great green beyond to learn more and more about their surroundings, and follow rumours about some of the plot hooks that I have seeded throughout the small-nation sized space mapped out beyond… my map, they’re not allowed to see it.
Of course you may not want – or be able to share information, some players have already landed themselves far from Meadsbridge in one of the outlying settlements with no easy way to communicate with the larger settlements nearby, and have already got a couple of secrets they’d rather not share with everyone… but they’ll soon learn that without friends, they’ll find themselves in fatal situations with no one to depend upon for help.
The players will need to keep their ears out for rumours and plot hooks, not just from one another, but also the citizens of the cities and settlements, and the wandering caravans beyond. Wandering into the wilds will yield some results, but the true treasures must be sought, rather than stumbled across.
Every hex on the map (built in hexographer if you’re interested) works out to roughly half a day’s travel on foot, about fifteen miles, and for every half-day of travel there is an enormous random encounter table, with changing regional effects, different possibilities depending on the intent of travel, some fixed landmarks that can help with navigation, such as the estuary or certain distant forests, ridges, and settlements. The region is awash with bandits, gnolls, incursions of demons, hidden enclaves of halflings, dwarven mines, hives of serpentflies, nests of manticores and griffons, and the spawning lakes of whales. There are about a dozen side-quests, dungeons, and wandering monsters to pursue with more being added constantly, and amidst all of it a hidden story, scattered like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle between the people who set out from that single point of light and into the darkness.
Which sounds grandiose for a project that is little more than a Facebook community page, but as the first dozen players are starting to scratch the surface, now felt like the time to share the ridiculous scope of the Meadsbrdige wilderness.
For this MMTTRPG I’ve made the process of character creation a guided affair for two reasons:
The first is to try and keep things fair. Players still roll dice to determine their statistics, but those rolls have an inverse effect on your character choices later on. Points are used to buy things like the ability to choose your race and class, or to start with a magic item, or a map, or additional information, and the better your stats, the fewer of those points you receive. A player with bad stats can choose to start at second level rather than first. It makes people whose dice rolls have turned against them feel a little more empowered.
And second is to create something a little more unique and immersive. Four human nations, a twist on the subraces of both halflings and dwarves, a little more personality granted to elves, and four different human nations. Additionally I have traded the classic exotic races (dragonborn, gnomes, half elves, half orcs, and tieflings) with a collection from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, aasimar to reflect that the world is young, and the blood of gods still flows in mortal veins, goliaths and firbolgs, as giants are prolific across the world, and kenku and lizardfolk from far-off lands to lend some mystery to the world at large.
Once a character is made each player gets a short .pdf with all the information they need to get started, and a hefty chunk of lore that they can dive into for inspiration. Any character options, like their magic items, extra rumours, or anything else they might have chosen gets added to this file. After a few levels of play, players may want to retire their character, because doing so yields more options at character creation, with additional points depending on the successes and deeds of their last character, and the positive behaviours of the player.
The Shropshire Dungeon Master IX
So this is kind of a business diary, because this grand idea of mine (that I stole) currently has thirteen players, of which only seven have played, and four more at the weekend. recruiting isn’t too difficult, as interest is always high, the problem will be finding venues for games as most of the groups will eventually be strangers to one another (to start with) and will want to meet on neutral ground, at least for their first few sessions. Pubs are often busy, and most private spaces require a fee – usually more than my margin, thus negating the point of running games as a living.
As regular readers know – especially if you read my old DMing 101 series – I do not like playing online, it’s fine for some, and has some amazing benefits, but I find it hinders the enjoyment of the game and as my players now pay to be at the table, I want them to have the best experience possible.
I have been working on this project for months and it is so gratifying to roll it out to real players, but I knew there would be pitfalls and problems, and there’s a certain amount of fun to be found in overcoming those problems, but when your players are your customers it’s always better to be on top of the minor issues so that the game is the focus of the experience, not the days spent finding a table at which to play.
This April I will be disappearing a long way north for a week to run a long game of D&D at the Wargaming Nationals that I attended last year, and then shortly thereafter at Insomnia in Birmingham. Additionally in June, I have a table at Comics Salopia and upcoming celebration of Shropshire’s deep connection to the comic book industry, the wealth of local artists and writers, and I will be raising by geeky standard and running games for anyone who comes to see.
Since the dominance of the sandbox, railroading gameplay through linear non-divergent story and specific plot paths has become something of a faux-pas in game design, and was never looked upon favourably in tabletop roleplaying. As a player you seek agency, and often that comes from such simple things as choosing which path to take to the same inevitable end, and not following the obvious trail of breadcrumbs laid out for you. These days we laud games for open worlds, multiple endings, and the ability to approach one problem a dozen ways, to play it your way.
All but gone are the days of the 3D platformer, and the rail shooter, technology and computing power has given us the power to create actual worlds and weave beautiful stories into them rather than just telling a story and dragging you by the nose along it.
But is it so bad a thing that we’re better off entirely being rid of it, and casting away the strictly linear narratives of old?
There are times when actually taking your players by the nose and dragging them to the plot is not necessarily an unforgivable act. Here are a couple of examples of uses for, and in defence of railroading your story.
Here’s a nice easy one to get this started off. When beginning a campaign, or game, or whatever interactive experience your trying to share, you’ll usually have a few fundamentals to share, basic bits of information to share that’ll allow the player to understand the experiences to follow. A little bit of railroading aids “showing not telling” like the opening test chambers of Portal encouraging thinking with portals. Obduction drives you down a path in pursuit of one of the world-shifting seeds, and leaves you in a small bubble that tells you everything you need to know about the transition mechanics you’ll be playing with.
It’s a form of tutorial, but done right it’s so subtle that you barely notice it every replay. We’re guided through set pieces that leave us without doubt about where we’re going or what we’re doing for the rest of the game.
There are occasions where your story takes a turn that irrevocably changes everything. No turning back, and no matter what you have done up to this point this moment was unavoidable. Moments like the time-shift in Guild Wars, where the entire “tutorial” felt like an open world in it’s own right, only for everything to change in a single moment. Transitioning from one Mass Effect or Witcher still leaves you with a short period in which games are identical, no matter the decisions you’ve made.
Now, actions and decisions made before this pivotal moment can alter the events that follow, but all paths lead here ultimately. Most games use this kind of narrative, the storyline quests that so often get ignored in pure sandboxes, but there are times where that epic moment changes everything to the point where there’s no going back or wandering off to finish that sidequest you’ve been ignoring.
I’ll skim over this because this one’s more of a cheap trick, somewhat less acceptable. False choices are the doors you walk up to that suddenly slam shut and lock you out, or those decisions that immediately kill you or end the game. Arkham City did that with Catwoman’s story at one stage, where she had the option to simply walk away with loot in pocket, but because the game needed you to save Batman the game simply ended there. Sorry guys, given a real choice I’d have taken the money and run.
A Good Story
Halflife, Telltale Games, Psychonauts, hell most games will railroad up to a point. When your story is good and worth telling there’s nothing wrong with taking agency from the players in terms of narrative direction. In the drive to create bigger and more incredible games let’s not lose sight of a good story and the ways in which we can tell them, putting the player into the hazard suit of a mute scientist as he weaves through supersoldiers and alien parasites to reach the incredible conclusion of his epic tale (that will have been stuck on a cliffhanger for ten years this October) or filling the boots of the intrepid archaeologist as she shoots her way through adventures far more thrilling than any actual archaeologist would ever encounter.
I consider myself a world-builder first and foremost, so I’ll advocate for the ability to wander aimlessly around the whole world and delve its deepest corners and unveil every shred of lore, even if I have to sit and spend time that should be shooting down killer robots reading books on killer robot maintenance. But sometimes when a moment needs to be shared, or an idea is so stunning that it simply must be seen, there’s nothing wrong with putting the plot on tracks and asking everyone to enjoy the ride for a while.
We might be digging ourselves a hole with this review, however we almost forgot to do a proper review of the indie sensation. From Creepers that pop out of the middle of nowhere, to Skeletons and Zombies, you can be sure to have yourself a fun survival game. Witches come out at this time of the year too, so there’s more to Minecraft than just a sandbox game – But how do all of the modes play out? Timlah checks out the mighty Minecraft for a full review.