I’ve talked many times in this blog about the format of my Aurikesh campaign, but today I want to dig into it in detail, both for its strengths and its weaknesses. The fundamental format isn’t in any way unique to Aurikesh; from what I have read, it seems to have been Gygax’s original format. Still, it largely faded from use for decades, until Ben Robbins described his (now hugely influential) West Marches format. As you’ll see, I retain some elements of those models, but abandon most of them. Further, when I talk about the Aurikesh format, that’s utterly selfish – even other campaigns I’m playing in use the things I see as the key elements, and I’m not trying to cut them out of discussion here. It’s just that “drop-in/drop-out format” and “variable roster format” and every other phrasing I came up with was a mouthful without much benefit to clarity. I also want to talk about how this influences the game systems that I even consider running.
The central consideration is that everyone in my campaign is a thirtysomething or fortysomething, many of us with spouses who also want to play, and many of us with kids. This pushes us toward longer, less-frequent sessions, maybe 6-8 hours once a month, rather than 3-4 hours once a week or every other week. We’re also scattered all over the Metro Atlanta area, and several players live in the demon-haunted mountains that ancient manuscripts call “Tennessee,” so it’s an even bigger deal for them to drive down. I could have gone for a smaller group that all lived closer to my house, but I want to entertain a lot of people, even if we play more rarely. The larger group means that when my schedule is open enough to run a game, I can just about always find at least three players available. I also run online sessions of 3-4 hours intermittently, but those carry some other tradeoffs.
At the moment, I have 15 “active” players in Aurikesh. In any one session, I might have as few as three players (hypothetically, I would run with two, but generally don’t), or as many as eight. Three to six is still the ideal range, in terms of getting back around to each player’s next turn before their attention has drifted (and possibly initiated more crosstalk). Some of these “active” players are guests from out of town who rolled up a character for a session, but have pretty good odds of playing that character again. Over the course of the campaign, there have been a total of 31 players.
Kainenchen, Louis, Stands-in-Fire, and Samhaine all do similar things in their campaigns, for essentially similar reasons, but for the moment the Aurikesh active roster is the largest of those. (Subject to change without warning.) The accounts of Gygax’s early campaigns make it sound like tons of players, and a still greater number of characters, cycled through the Greyhawk roster. If Mearls is calling his bizarro-old-school initiative “Greyhawk Initiative,” maybe I’m really running “Greyhawk Format,” but without most of the megadungeons.
The tradeoff of large-roster play is that it messes with how players engage with the campaign. A lot of things happen that each individual player doesn’t see, so players spend a lot of time catching each other up on what is going on and talking about things other PCs have done. If someone misses several months of sessions, it can be tough to come back into the game. I do what I can to address this by maintaining session logs, but I don’t do a great job of this overall – it’s incredibly time-consuming. I’ve offered in-game cash rewards for writing in-character after-action reports, but my players are as busy as I am (and many of them are less motivated to write than I am), so they’ve only taken me up on this a few times. Most recently, players write their own after-actions when they want to cover something up or provide the in-game leadership with plausible deniability.
I also created an “Active Adventure Options” page on the player-facing wiki as a way to track what’s current and what other groups have taken care of. It’s not an exhaustive list, as the PCs could always decide to pursue something I haven’t considered, or ignore all of those options and go looking for trouble in some other way. These are just prompts, but it’s proven to be immensely useful to the players.
Multiple Characters per Player
To go along with that, several Aurikesh players have two or more characters. At the start of any session, they decide which one they want to play, as long as the character isn’t still in the midst of another adventure (as often happens… and is the driving need for them to create new characters). Some players strongly prefer to have only one character. When those players have a character in the midst of an adventure (because we don’t otherwise have the right group of people to complete that adventure), they either bow out of the roster gracefully, or I run a flashback sequence to cover a period in the timeline for which their personal waveform is not yet collapsed.
One of the major effects of this is that the XP income is divided up among multiple characters – for example, Kainenchen has one character at 6th, one at 5th, and one at 4th. If you combine all of her characters, she more XP than the next closest player, but her highest-XP character is less than 3k XP ahead of the next-highest single character. This also means that the campaign has stayed in low or low-mid level play for a really, really long time. I’ve run 73 sessions to date, starting in November of 2012. The first 26 sessions – the D&D Next era – had very low XP awards, but I’ve gradually increased those as the highest-level characters have progressed. This has really highlighted for me the oddities of the 5e XP chart – each level up to 6th requires more than twice as much XP the entirety of what you’ve earned to date. The jump from 6th to 7th is, relative to what you’ve done so far, much shallower. Anyway.
Slow advancement is mixed blessing. On the plus side, I don’t have as much of the world-logic problem of suddenly revealing that there were high-level threats around every corner that, for whatever reason, were inactive up to this point. I can introduce those threats slowly enough, or just when the PCs go far from home, that it’s scarcely noticeable. It also keeps players a little more focused on story goals than mechanical ones, which is of paramount importance to me. That is, I want players to want the shiny new powers that the rulebook promises, but I want it to be a distant second place to whatever is going on in the setting and the session. (My players are wonderful and at least let me believe that their priorities are arranged in this way.)
The main reason that slow advancement is necessary is that new characters will forever be joining the campaign, and I’ve decided that they should start at 1st level. Because advancement is slow, then, there’s only a five-level gap between the lowest-level character and the highest. We recently saw just how severe a five-level gap really is, as Colin describes here. In short, it’s still a really big deal, and it’s incredibly hard to build encounters to suit such a gap. To be fair, that wasn’t an explicit design goal for 5e, and 5e handles it an awfully lot better than 3.x or 4e, so it’s a case of me using 5e for something it wasn’t intended to do. On the other hand, a 3rd or 4th-level character narrows that gap substantially, and the gap between 5th and 6th is essentially negligible. I did have other options here, but the one time I polled my players about ways I could level the playing field between new PCs and long-established ones, the answer came back, “No, thanks.”
The downside of slow advancement is the possibility of tedium or frustration – even if you’re more interested in story than mechanics, you can still want to see some of the bigger, badder spells and abilities come within your grasp. We make occasional jokes about features that various classes get at 10th level or thereabouts, always followed with some variation on “and that’s right around the corner.” It’s not all that easy to feel like you’re “catching up” with a new character, except that characters almost always reach 3rd level by the end of their first session.
Widely varying levels were clearly a substantial feature of the earliest D&D games, and I infer that it’s a feature of West Marches. I don’t have a high mortality rate in the campaign; thus far I think there have been two deaths (one revivify and one NPC-cast raise dead that spawned a lengthy side-quest), and a few close calls. I’m fine with this general arrangement – death is one consequence out of many, and not really the most interesting one.
One thing I’ve learned from having a party roster that often completely ignores any concept of “party roles” is that 5e needs role coverage much, much less than other editions have. Among the 15 active players and 30-odd active characters, there’s one cleric and two bards. None of them are rushing out to be primary healers. But you can go a long, long way on a smattering of healing magic and actually using your hit dice. We’ve had rosters that you wouldn’t expect to see in D&D, like the one that was three rogues, a barbarian, a paladin, a fighter, and a warlock, or the time it was just a party of four fighters.
The Unifying Element
With so many players and characters, I needed something to bring them all together. They’re clearly not a small team of do-gooders or murderhobos – they’re a sprawling organization that is constantly recruiting. My solution was to make them all members of a mercenary company, the Gallant Shields of Chardecum. In peacetime, they’re more or less security contractors and troubleshooters; what exactly is going to happen in wartime has been one of the campaign’s ongoing questions, as the threat of war has loomed over them. (In theory, the Prince hires the Company to fight for him.) The Company is a steady source of adventure hooks, needs, and a quick way for players to develop loyalties (since I’ve gone ahead and told them one of the sides they have to favor).
The West Marches model amounts to “everyone who drinks in the same tavern” as its unifying element, I think, and that’s fine for what it’s doing. Kainenchen’s Liel campaign has all of the characters hired by the same guy. Louis’s Reborn campaign has people make bargains with the gods (who are also dragons) to go from 0-level characters to PCs with character classes. Stands-in-Fire’s Granite Sledge campaign has all of its PCs wake up in the regeneration tanks of the same spacesea giant space ship. Samhaine’s Beyond the Wall campaign has all of the characters come from the same village, which is (I think) the norm for BtW.
It’s hardly a new idea for the players to have some kind of asset held in common, that everyone cares about and (ideally) can develop during play. This isn’t standard, as such, in 5e the way it is in SIFRP, WHFRP3e (the team card), basically every space-exploration game (the ship), and many other games. I’d say it’s one of the main places that 5e could use a new rules module to catch up to some of the greatest-hits innovations of the last fifteen years of game development.
I didn’t do anything fancy with displaying or tracking the Company’s finances or the like, but there’s an officer hierarchy the PCs can potentially enter and several key NPCs that they’ve gotten to know. One of the major plot developments has been the PCs accidentally helping to elevate a new member of the Company’s Council of Honor (i.e., board of directors), who is… not your typical leadership material. (When the PCs responsible finally revealed that to a player who had not been to a session in a long time, the response was so amazing, and justified the whole model of this game’s shared context.)
Plot versus Sandbox
I try to walk a line between a sandbox and having a plot. The West Marches format requires that all motivating force come from the players, and I’m just not doing that. There are individuals and factions in the world with agendas that the PCs want to oppose. From the start of the campaign, I knew that the ruler of the principality the PCs live in was influenced by an evil angel, and I slow-rolled that reveal to give the PCs a lot of low-pressure time to explore, make connections, and so on. They could go on ignoring this, but at this point they’ve shown their hand and demonstrated their intent to stop the evil angel from getting what it wants.
There’s a lot of world to explore, including a few things that one could reasonably call megadungeons. The PCs have spent three sessions – in two separate ventures – exploring one of them, but mostly they stay in their home city and have urban adventures. This is as sharp of a departure from the West Marches model as one could imagine, but it still works fine. It has the benefit of taking very little in-play travel time or out-of-play resolution time to get to the scene of the adventure, and it lets me reuse NPCs a lot. Also, most of the best swashbuckling that doesn’t take place on a ship happens in a city.
As a result, the campaign conforms to neither sandbox nor plotted campaign formats, but switches between the two with as much grace as I can manage. The villains are active forces in the world, but the PCs aren’t ignoring the game that I’m trying to provide by doing something different with their time. There’s plenty of barely-explored territory for a protracted hexcrawl, but with as many plot threads as have been introduced already, I don’t know that there’s a lot of motivation to go wander around and see if they can find something else fun. The Company and the now-customary adventure-opening meeting with Commandant Archel Garin are all about making it as easy as possible to find the fun in a non-directed experience.
Money versus Greater Goals
For some reasons that I can rationalize in-character, but mostly because I think money pressure keeps the game interesting, I am pretty stingy with the local coinage as treasure, especially given that the PCs are often splitting it six or seven ways. There’s good magical loot to be found (though some characters are a lot easier to appeal to with magic items than others are), though the vast array of characters means that only a very few have more than one magic item. But a lot of the goals that players decide to pursue are things they recognize ahead of time as lacking a clear revenue stream. This makes their higher-ups in the Company sort of grumble at them, but they’re do-gooders, agents of chaos, or potential revolutionaries, not dedicated treasure hunters. Choosing between doing something useful and doing something profitable has been a fun tension more than a tedious one, I think (well, I hope).
At the same time, I track the passage of time and charge upkeep by the week. Even for the characters who have more than a year of “standard” upkeep safely banked, I think this really pushes the sense that they could never have enough or be secure in wealth. This exact train of thought causes tons of bad behavior in real life, but it’s enormously beneficial to gaming. It’s widely acknowledged in D&D that there aren’t enough compelling, big-ticket purchases to appeal to wealthy, high-level characters. In Aurikesh, I’ve seen characters spend what the setting treats as huge sums of money to pay fines from dubious court judgments, to support local orphanages, to organize and fund secret fighting forces, and so on. As others have said in greater depth, the secret to money in 5e is to present a living world with a wide variety of goals, so that the PCs use their accumulated lucre to grease the wheels of as many of those goals as possible – and thus put themselves back in the position of needing more money and scraping by to pay their upkeep. Every once in a long while, they get a chance to buy magic items, with a short and predetermined list of options.
Game Design Tech
All of these decisions and their tradeoffs result in something utterly incompatible with some of the recent ideas we’ve seen in tabletop development. (In some cases, I’m using “recent” awfully loosely.) I’m the kind of person normally inclined to steal ideas as widely as possible and hack D&D into whatever I want to try out today, but there aren’t a lot of new games coming out that consciously support the drop-in/drop-out format that our lives as adults with jobs and families have pushed onto us. I’ll get to some of the games that do in a minute.
- Bonds/Hx as meaningful game stats and character advancement (PBTA games, among others). With characters constantly coming and going – 53 so far – there’s no reasonable way to even track all of those values, much less get a lot of mileage out of them in the course of play.
- Milestone XP (4e and 5e D&D, and unofficially probably every edition). Milestone XP is for games with a through-line story and clear progress, or (with some heavy modification) for some kinds of sandbox games. As Aurikesh is neither, and new players start at 1st level, it would be a lot more trouble than it’s worth to adopt milestone XP. I definitely don’t have time for tracking XP from monster kills or the like, though, so XP values are numerical and closely tracked, but each session’s reward is arbitrary.
- Player-collaborative setting creation (Smallville and buckets of other games). Four of the initial players are still involved in the campaign, to varying degrees, but I wouldn’t want them to have had strong creative control, only to have all the players that came along later receive no similar creative input on what was where in the world. (But I have a deep skepticism of player-collaborative setting creation from first principles, if exploration and investigation are key parts of gameplay.)
- One Unique Thing (13th Age). For the same reasons as the broader category of player-collaborative setting creation – 53 unique things means that characters get harder to create as the campaign goes along.
- Each Playbook/Class is Unique (Dungeon World, et al.). I have no idea what’s interesting about the person with the Wizard playbook being the only Wizard in the setting (and so on for all playbooks), as DW asserts, but it’s completely infeasible for my format. If you’re reading this and you’re a huge fan of that as a setting assertion, maybe comment and sell me on the idea.
- Short-term, high-octane campaign (Shadow of the Demon Lord, I think?). I care deeply about the sense of accumulated history, relationships with NPCs, and small stories that long-term play permits. It leaves a lot more time for low-to-medium stakes stories, so when things do go high-stakes, there’s something to point to as contrast.
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing at all wrong with having clear, opinionated design and goals, and those goals not aligning with what I’m doing. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations works for tabletop game design too. Even so, I want to put forth the argument that if fantasy adventure gaming is your jam in tabletop, the Aurikesh format is a lot friendlier to life as an adult than the “traditional” stable-roster format, unless you just prefer very short campaigns. Because I think it’s going to be useful to an ever-increasing number of gaming groups (as an alternative to dropping out of the hobby for a decade or two while you have kids), I hope more games might take a page from my playbook, and from some of those below.
- Blades in the Dark, especially if you cycle in new lists of NPCs for each playbook once each NPC on the list has context with 2-3 PCs. The only danger is being a starting character in a high-tier gang. That might be really bad for your health, potentially. The gang’s role in drawing characters together and setting them against the world is, of course, ideal.
- SIFRP has reasonably shallow character growth and rules for belonging to a House. Because so much of the setting’s history is detailed, you could pretty readily do an ultra-long generational game, as long as PCs were prepared for the major vicissitudes of fate to take away a lot of their House’s growth progress from time to time. Lord knows GRRM is comfortable with supersized cast lists.
- King Arthur Pendragon is, of course, the definitive generational game, and thanks to the Round Table there’s room for an enormous number of knights. My only concern is that the rich-get-richer Glory system, including the generational Glory edge, might shut out newer players. This was a bit of a problem back when I played in a Great Campaign.
- Ars Magica is also a potentially generational game, and troupe-style play is a great fit for a wildly fluctuating roster – though it also means that a lot of people maybe shouldn’t bother creating a magus, and should just build companions. There’s a right way to sell that so that it doesn’t feel bad, but it’s hard. Maybe you just go with “you’ll play a companion for the first 2-3 sessions, as you learn the covenant’s dynamic, and then if you’re still in, create a magus.” I dunno, that still sounds kind of icky.
- I ran Over the Edge in a way loosely related to this. The original characters were all burned CIA agents, while the later introductions were the typical spread of burger that one finds on Al Amarja. OtE’s shallow and mostly irrelevant advancement were a huge help here. (The new OtE can’t come soon enough OMG OMG OMG.)
Are there systems that are particularly friendly to what I’m talking about here that I’ve overlooked? Sure, Fate could do that, but it does so kind of generically – but Spirit of the Century (for example) doesn’t, since it’s pretty crucial to be there for the character creation session. I can imagine making this work in Ashen Stars or Night’s Black Agents or something, but I’d have to dig into them a lot deeper than I have so far to find out how that would fly. I’m certainly tempted to see how Alternity 2e supports a Dendarii Free Mercenary Corps… Anyway, if you know of systems or mechanics that particularly support fluctuating rosters and low-commitment play, I’m interested to hear about them.