One school of thought looks at the DM as a Storyteller with a narrative he wants to get across. The players fill the rolls of actors in this story whose primary purpose is to help move the DM’s story along through all of its beats. In this case, the characters often become critical to the fulfillment of the narrative, so player absence and character death can be crippling to the DM’s plans for completing his story. While the latter is avoided by fudging in favor of characters in an effort to avoid ‘ruining the story’, the former cannot be mitigated and can lead to arc and even game collapse.
The other school of thought looks at the DM as a referee and curator of a playground. The players fill the role of both storytellers and actors in a fully improvised narrative. Story emerges naturally from play, oftentimes in unexpected and exciting ways which could not be foreseen.
To show an example of this latter school of thought in practice, I’d like to share the last player session report of the DCC game I’m in, written by James “JamesOfJames” Shepherd.
First a few points of context:
Though we started out in a megadungeon city, game is purely hex crawl sandbox right now. We have over a dozen characters spread out among almost as many players. No one is a “plot essential” character, nor is there any “plot” other than what happens in the sessions. We only had a few of us there for this session (Blaxjax, a fighter; Pashi, James’ cleric; and Elyse, my thief), but an incredible amount of stuff happened.
It was a busy two weeks for Blaxjax, Elyse, and Pashi. (Pretend names are spelled correctly.) We watched Blaxjax get absolutely pummeled in the fighting pits of Zig’s cult, but Pashi made out on her side bets against him and Elyse picked some pockets (which will become relevant later.) His opponent – a lightning-fast fighter named Jadi (rhymes with ‘body’) Amar – thanked him for the chance to go up against the renowned Blaxjax and asked to join the party and lead a life of adventure. A newly-heard rumor gave us our direction – apparently, some days’ travel north-east of town, in a saddle in the hills, there are crystals which have healing properties, though they require some blood to be shed to work. Since Pashi’d been working on healing the crippled and needy and starting a rough hospital in town, she suggested they check out the rumors, and swing by where the party of hunters/bandits was last seen on the way.
Jadi, who apparently missed his calling as a folklorist of the region, was somewhat unnerved by the forest to the north (which Elyse dubbed the Watcher’s Wood.) He told of bandits in the region who ate their victims. In the woods, we shot a warning arrow above some deer – since Crusher and Vixen were well-provisioned already – and they bolted, as less-creepy deer would be expected to do. After arriving at the meeting point, we followed the hunter’s trail north and west. The small band spotted an old fort on a peninsula, still mostly intact, housing around fifteen persons. Grossly outnumbered, we turned back the way we came, and met another hunting party carrying deer back toward the fort. They were surprised to see us, and seemed about to draw weapons – luckily, Pashi mentioned that she was a priestess of the sea-god Owscheith, and the hunters responded favorably. They claimed to be sailors, who compete for business (what business was unspecified) with merchants in town. We parted peaceably, even on some good terms, though there was some lingering distrust – several of their number still seemed to be sizing us up as we left.
Wary after coming upon so many well-armed and dubious folk, we posted an extra watch and tried to leave a false trail to a cold camp. A bear wandered in while Pashi was taking her turn at rest, but the three on watch successfully scared it away with little trouble. Jadi had a nightmare of dark wings and dark clouds, though he didn’t want to discuss it, and the next morning, Elyse opined that the forest felt cursed to her. As the forest thinned to the northeast of where the hunters were first encountered, we came upon a boar (which we avoided) and then to what seemed to be an abandoned sugar cane plantation, left to run wild. We could see little but the two story house with its caved-in roof and a large cistern on the back side – Jadi warned of a place where a well-to-do family used to eat passerby in the region. After Elyse heard singing on her stealthy approach, Pashi cautiously approached, the rest of the party under orders to do what was needful, including paralyze her with poison, if things seemed amiss. Approaching openly, the singing stopped, and a figure with green hair emerged from the water. She gave her name as Namia, and asked if we had any rum to drink.
Taking the excuse to consult with the party, Elyse offered that she’d heard of creatures like this before – it was probably a nymph, and was unlikely to harm us, if not necessarily trustworthy. We shared our libations and talked through the rest of that third day of travel – Namia told us of the curse placed upon the Watcher’s Wood. Long ago, to make a long story short, there was much bloodshed and atrocity committed, and the land was cursed. She advised against committing any barbarous acts in the wood, though she said if we hunted what we needed, we should come to no harm. We talked at some length that day and the next, resting and hearing a great deal said and sung about Namia’s favorite subject, the creations of man and their fall into ruin. The songs had a sweet sorrow to them. We broached the idea of re-settling the plantation, which pleased Namia greatly, especially if it meant more rum for her to drink. After the second night, we headed to the east, where Namia thought there were hills which could fit the rumors heard in town.
Pashi took Jadi aside on the way and got him to open up privately about his nightmare. He talked about a black cloud with glowing red eyes and dark wings chasing him, toying with him, always faster than him. Comforting him, Pashi said she could understand how such an uncanny out-maneuvering the lightning-quick fighter could be unnerving indeed. The party chanced upon some giant beetles, which seemed to focus on Pashi at first. As Elyse withdrew to safety, leading Crusher at a run, she goaded Vixen into the fight, who charged into one of the three beetles surrounding Pashi. Blaxjax and Jadi joined the fray and made short work of the beetles. While healing wounds after the fight (and harvesting the beetles’ glowing glands,) Pashi was stricken with shame at the abysmal account she gave of herself in the fight and remained humiliated the rest of the day. Continuing roughly east, we came across a large sinkhole late in the day, roughly 100′ across and some 25′ deep. Getting well away from the unstable terrain, we set up camp. Continuing southeast into the nearest hills, we came upon a shack in front of what seemed to be a cave or mine. Blaxjax kicked in the door, finding four barrels of silver ore in what amounted to a tool shed.
Realizing the value of the find, we immediately loaded two barrels to each mule and left behind an assortment of rations and inexpensive starting gear, allowing the mules to move at half-speed back toward town. As we finished redistributing the loads around noon this sixth day, lightning without an apparent storm erupted – noted folklorist Jadi Amar told us that this was rumored to be a portent of the cannibals he feared in the area. Heading back through the forest as directly as possible, we pushed through the night to make it to the northern watchtower in short order, and then on toward town.
Back in Greyhold, we bought four tents and eight bedrolls, as we decided we’d had more than enough of sleeping on the ground. We also hired on nine carpenters and a nine mercenaries led by [Leah?] Hawkeye, an expert markswoman. Stopping by the guard tower the next night, we explained our plan to resettle the plantation a day’s travel through the Watcher’s Wood to the guards posted there, and requested that they make weekly patrols. The seven guards demurred, since they were undermanned at their post. After arriving back at Namia’s plantation, we filled in the carpenters’ foreman and sergeant Hawkeye about the dangers in the area; the cannibal-bandits and the fort to the west in particular. They weren’t especially pleased, but that’s why they got hazard pay. We promised we wouldn’t leave them at risk for too long, and promised to take care of any threat the fort may pose shortly.
Returning to town, we lobbied the town’s government to increase the patrol at the northern watchtower, which they did for a small bribe. There should be weekly patrols between the tower and our farmstead and the garrison should be doubled to fourteen guards. Discussing what should be done about the fort, Pashi volunteered to scout the fort, since we suspect the sailors are the same group as the fort’s inhabitants, and they reacted well enough to her at first. (She is willing to come up with some manner of subterfuge if need be – plans laid to signal when she might open the gate from inside, or perhaps poison the garrison with some of the near-ridiculous amounts of toxic and deadly substances we’ve been amassing.) The plan was agreed upon as a general strategy, since we have no solid evidence that the fort is a threat, and there’s little to do but pick off hunting parties failing solid intelligence on the fort’s defensive situation.
A freak storm blew up, and Pashi threw caution to the wind, heading toward the shore to ride out the storm in honor of Owscheith. Little seems to have come of that, though sailors newly-arrived in port report of a previously-unseen island in the approach to the town’s harbor. Blaxjax tried his luck once more in the fighting pits of Zig and won, losing Pashi some gold but gaining the favor of the warrior god. Back at the Happy Harpy after the bout, Pashi tried to talk Jadi into being the face of the party’s rum brand, when the time came, but he declined – Blaxjax is by far the superior fighter, in his mind. Elyse offered some true-to-life drawings she picked out of a mark’s bag during the first bouts some two weeks ago (I told you this would come up again.) The lewd drawings are recognizably of a noble’s young (not *that* young) daughter apparently engaged in some tryst; Elyse suggested that we use these ‘artworks’ as our label. Pashi approved of the plan – a small release at a selected gathering of the town’s upper crust seemed destined to bring interested parties forward to pay sizable sums to have the label changed.
tl;dr – we found a fort, then an old sugar cane farm inhabited by a lush water spirit, then a bunch of silver in a mine to the northeast. we plowed the money into restarting the farm, but didn’t find the healing crystals we set out to find in the northeast, and have promised our hirelings to clear the area of bandits soon to make the farmstead safer.
In more rote fantasy arcs, characters get strongholds, castles and kingdoms, because that is the natural progression of things. In free-form open world games with emergent stories, they can build plantations, plan distilleries and aim to corner to local rum markets by playing factions off against each other. This wasn’t some grand planned out design by our DM; he just put the tools at our disposal – a hex with a bandit fort, a hex with an abandoned sugar cane farm, a few hexes of creepy cursed woods, rumors and some stuff from random tables – and let us run with it. Even the supply puzzle aspect with our mules became a fun element when questions arose like “If we had to ride a mule to escape something, how much equipment will we have to dump?” and “How much vendor trash, spare equipment and rations do we cut loose so we can strap on all of this silver and get out of the wilderness at half-speed before something kills us?”
The best worldbuilding emerges on the micro, rather than the macro, level. No one is going to remember the names of the races or lost cultures or the extensive history of your locations. They may not even remember the names of the various gods, except for the ones who are immediately affecting the party by way of their clerics and cultists. It’s the ruined farms, the dolmens, the weird statues, abandoned cairns and forest outposts that will stick with players. They won’t remember the ancient king’s name, but they’ll remember that the woods to the north is full of bears. They won’t care about the fall of some kingdom on a distant shore, but you’d better believe that when a vendor is selling “snake proof boots”, everyone at the table will be all “aww, man! Snakes!” and be on the look-out for caves filled with slithering serpents.
Thanks again, James, for letting me share this, and a big thanks to our DM for running this kind of game for us!