18 November 2023

Campaign Retrospective: Southern Reaches

An open table sort-of-West Marches game has stalled out so let us do a retrospective Against the Wicked City style to see what we can learn and decide if it is worth reviving. Previous retrospectives were done on campaigns of yore and recently a Spelljammer Academy mini-campaign.

Southern Reaches, 23 Sessions (Dec 2022 - July 2023)
What it was: open table sandbox test using Brancalonia rules. I was approached to run it by one of my home-campaign players while they were overseas studying. They roped together a gang of folk. I also ran a 'B table' through the same set up as a test and that turned into fun combinations later.

For me this was a test of West Marchesstyle - as closely as could be done - no plots, no plans, each session started "you've come down to breakfast in the Flytrap Inn, this is who you see around the table, what are you up to today?" It was also an arena to try out things from various OSR blogs (biblio below) and has been my most formal 'method test' campaign so far where I was attempting to follow a style of game running as much as I was creating a world.

This is the campaign mentioned in Chekovs Hooks II: Refreshing Rumours.

What worked:
Pure shenanigans - this ended up being a deeply chaotic campaign, the brawl rules from Brancalonia giving it lower stakes means to stage confrontations and a general theme of disorganised whimsy among the characters.
Session minus one - to level-set expectations since these folk were strangers to me and we were meeting online for the first time. Detail here.
Animalings - the players leaned into the animalings, with an otterling, ratling and a racoonfoolk as three of the top five most frequent players. The varying height scales within the party led to some fun terrain and transport measures - particularly furry characters dealing with the waterlogged swamp, for instance.
Players driving the action - a subset of the players emerged as the action drivers - Alf, Chestnut, Francis and to a lesser extent Bin - if one of them was present for a session, the night would organise itself. You can read the outcomes of a bunch of that in Chekovs Hooks II: Refreshing Rumours. This upheld the 'no regular plot' leg of West Marches.
Encounter tables / Random generation - I built a big overloaded encounter table (Meandering Banter, Necropraxis, Haruspex Hovel, Frog Factory, Coins and Scrolls, Tome of Lost Lore) and it provided all the adventure for the players executing whatever plan they came up with that morning.
Setting - was developed using world building tools and blog challenges - an Azgaars map combined with the Deck Of Worlds for geography. I also used Downtime in Zyan to layer in history and factions. I added some blog challenges to add tension to the location (Wandering Gamist) and develop backgrounds to randomly generate NPCs on the fly (Throne of Salt).
Baiting hooks - I salted the sandbox with things they could go after and left them to it. Some were not subtle - like the big spooky castle at the end of the yard of their bar that none of the locals would talk about. People took up their poking sticks and went to pull on the hooks, it was great.
Doodle polls to organise - circulated late each month, games tagged in where at least 3 players were able. While it worked it was great - basically sent out doodle polls each month then blocked in nights that had at least three players. We often had a fourth jump in last minute, all to the good. This upheld the 'no regular table' leg of West Marches.

The roster started with the A-table (green), the original requestors and they got a good block in. I did one test with the B-table (blue) and then for the first 2/3 of the run it was the A table, occassionally mixed (pink) with 1-2 B-table players. Toward the end when a bunch of A-table players left we refocussed as mixed B-table plus any available A-table players.

What didn't:
True West March scheduling - players did not proactively seek dates to game, they did complete the doodle, so sessions were quasi 'on the fly'
Ghosting - come mid/late summer, people stopped replying to doodles and we went suddenly from 2-3 sessions a month to zero. Eventually word filtered back to me and some people did reach out but it effectively died all of a sudden and for a while I had no idea why.
Whatsapp groups - there was one w/ players only with all activity there, another with players plus me as the DM which was a broadcast channel for me then faded out. Intended as 'player schemes' and 'open' channels, the scheming happened but then the chore of communicating a digest of the schemes to me was that - a chore - so it never happened and I lost a bunch of visibility on what people were keen on.
Juggling - for a period I had both this and another table fluid on my calendar and it was a lot; happily the other games settled onto fixed days and Southern Reaches could float.
Life - the period to play this was while the smallest householder fell asleep regularly allowing 2.5hrs playtime; their sleep patterns have gone to hell and I can no longer see the slot this used to run on being available for the foreseeable. All evening gaming now requires babysitting.

Lessons learned:
No need for the big plot - The campaign was intense, lots of fun while it lasted. A couple of mini-arcs got done - Where the Wheat Grows Tall, the Taxchest and its burial, Castle Balronco and beneath - and a bunch more things got 'nudged' with potential for further adventure there. I stacked lots of things about the setting and people seemed to have fun prying into them.

This ended up being a pretty low stakes game from a combat sense - some beast encounters, but the brawl-rules from Brancalonia worked really well in making it less of a murderfest than standard D&D - but the hazard came from environmental stuff and prying into old secrets. People actually went poking about in castle dungeons of their own free will.

As a DM the methods tested worked well - the random tables, the longer downtime couples with 'gritty realism' of Brancalonia. It was an enjoyable change from my more intense Ducal House campaign where time passes by the half-hour or combat heavy Adventurers League stuff.. Here days passed and it was entirely in character for the PCs to be just dossing about with their feet up avoiding work.

The virtual format does not suit everyone, and we had a fair few electronic issues but overall it worked. It was a good second option for gaming where people did not have access to face-to-face but it was not the best available.

The detail of the sessions is worth another poast but basically I seeded a few written adventures (Rugantino from Brancalonia, Where the Wheat Grows Tall) to kick things off and then chucked a half-dozen adventure hooks 'go do me a mail run' type stuff - the rest of the campaign was the players self-directing - mostly prying into Castle Balronco, digging about under the Great Forest of Heng and most delightfully burying and reburying the chest of tax money they stole.

Core takeaway - I am sold on the open table concept, it works really well. I need an easy means to print out my random tables and the like and I would be happy to take this anywhere. If I could guarantee I could DM at nights I would be on to revive this - but not just now alas.

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