This Friday will be the conclusion of the Southern Reaches campaign. This campaign was an experiment for me on many fronts. It has provided me with a great deal of data and feedback on what I like and don't like as a DM. I've also received a minimal amount of feedback from the players and have thoughts on that and how to fix it. Finally, I have thoughts of using services like Skype to bring in remote players.
First was the use a West Marches-style campaign. I've never run a "real" sandbox setting before and it seemed to meet an issue I was having with the other two campaigns I was running at the time - missing players meaning no game. I tended to run a more adventure driven (if not actually story driven) games, asking the players where they wanted to go next at the end of a session and writing up an adventure that integrated that as much as I could. This ran into issues when a player (or players) whose character was critical for an adventure could not make the (at the time monthly) session. Real life gets in the way that way, but them's the breaks.
A West Marches-style campaign uses who ever shows up and whatever they want to do that session is what happens. This can cause issues of its own, but coupled with a switch to a weekly game session, there were I think two times during the entire year-long campaign where we could not play due to not enough players and that dropped off when the players started taking cohorts. Additionally, missing one week of a weekly game was much easier to get past than missing the only game that month, especially during holiday season.
The weekly play helped the game greatly, even if it did kill my other two campaigns. Running a game only once a month let me be lazy about my prep work, but giving me enough time to run two different campaigns. I thought adding a sandbox game would require some heavy up front work, but then I could drift and just make tweaks as things went along. Boy was I wrong. Weekly games mean a need to update the world on a weekly basis. On weekends when a monthly game also happened, I had to prep for two different campaigns and balance not alienating my wife (who, admittedly, played in one of them, but we still need "us" time that does not include other people around a table).
Maintaining a weekly game keeps it more alive, for me and the players, making all the work very much worth it. Additionally, many players will try to start making an impact on the world, causing it to develop in interesting ways. In the Southern Reaches, Thorngrim used multiple castings of wall of stone at the end of each day to create rude towers for the adventurers to camp in. These towers, abandoned after the PCs move on, can become the nucleus of settlements, both of "civilized" races and "barbaric" humanoids. Or just monsters who value keeping the rain off. Why are their ruins all over the place? Early adventurers camping in some sort of style.
The one experiment I was unhappy about was bringing in remote players via Skype. The service is fine, but there were definite issues with the execution. The biggest was remote players not being able to hear everything going on. While they had headsets and we could hear them fine (sometimes too fine, especially when candies were being unwrapped), they often had difficulty hearing everything said at the table. This caused long pauses of apparent silence when nothing seemed to be going on at the table when in reality, significant conversations were actually going on.
The other issue was visibility. Skype assumes all parties are pointing their cameras at themselves. In order to show the map, we obviously had to point the camera at it. This is where it stayed for most of the game, which meant the remote players were seeing a static map image and might or might not be hearing conversations at the table. Boredom city. This is antithetical to the social experience tabletop RPGs are strongest at. If the entire group was using Skype and had headsets and the group was using some sort of electronic tabletop, this would work, and work well. However, a mixed group of remote and at-the-table players is not the best place for this technology. Now, we could have spent more money and effort getting a multiple microphone system and setting up multiple camera feeds, but that is way past what we were really interested in doing and, frankly, beyond what we could afford to spend.
So, that's my thoughts right now. I may have more to say later, after I've had a chance to talk with the remote players about what their experience was really like.
Until then, later!