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Western Marches is a style of RPG game where the players face an increasing amount of danger and hazards the further they go in a given direction. This can be due to being on a frontier, on the border of a war or for any other reason. The problem is that this is all fairly contrived. There always seems to be a focal point from which danger spreads. A magical explosion that mutated the land around it, the closer you get, the worse it is. A war on a border, the further you go the more deeply the enemy are entrenched.

I want to know if there any reasons as to why a world would be inherently more dangerous the further you went in a direction (or over time) without there being a focal point of danger. Given that worlds are circular, lets set the distance that they can travel to be at least 2000 miles.

While danger and hazards caused by people are fine, I would also like some focus on non man made problems. I do not want answers that have the most danger at a focal point. The players are never meant to reach that point, so you don't need to worry about hazards and dangers suddenly stopping.

I'm primarily looking at a standard Dungeons and Dragons style setting (although answered based on high tech are welcome, I can use them for different games)

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    $\begingroup$ and the antithesis of danger focal point would also be disallowed? I mean a focal point of safety provided by for example magic, enforcement troops etc. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Oct 16 '14 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ It could be allowed, but that focal point would need to be capable of expanding over such a large area with a fairly consistent decrease in protection provided $\endgroup$ – Mourdos Oct 16 '14 at 14:02
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There seem to be three main reasons:

  1. They are leaving a focal point of safety. This can by caused by magic, your own forces, inhospitable terrain for the enemy. One useful one would be a massive attack (like meteor strike) where you were protected so the initial foes are weakened. This is, kind of, cheating, however as it is just a focal point of danger for the enemy.
  2. General topographical world differences. Imagine the enemy is frost giants and you are a band of amphibious tritons. When you move away from the sea and go towards the poles or up in elevation: you will get weak, they will get stronger, or both. These topographical differences are not focused but certain environments through the world can be beneficial to different sides/foes. This can be magical topography like different magic levels in different regions. This can easily be resource availability if trolls eat Yummirockite and it is located in varying amounts in different regions.
  3. Off beaten path effects: California isn't that dangerous any more unless you are LA. It was, however, much more dangerous before it had been explored. If there are many other adventurers who have gone out in your dangerous direction, the further you go in that direction, the more dangerous it will be as few forefighters have left you any metaphorical foot holds. The closest big bads have already been slain; the furthest are still waiting to be discovered.
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, a really cool example of 1, 2, and 3 would be exploring a cave system or ancient underground dungeon complex. Cliche but sometimes cliches work. $\endgroup$ – kaine Oct 16 '14 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ Aww, my answer is covered by number 3 here ;) If your party has less and less access to supplies the farther they go, and has to rely on the (increasingly unfamiliar) local wildlife to survive, it should get increasingly difficult. The wildlife itself doesn't really get stronger, but the party grows more and more weakened with every day/battle. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Oct 16 '14 at 16:00
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The approach I took to my own Western Marches world was the combination of two ideas.

First, there was a long-lasting war that has recently ended due to an unexplained disappearance of one side that has, up until that point, mostly been winning -- this left the territory beyond the frontline littered with old battlefields, traps, half-functional war machines, magical anomalies, etc. It would be logical that as the adventurers traversed this "no man's land" and came closer to the disappeared faction's true borders, they would run into increased incidence of automated and passive defenses.

The second idea was one I borrowed from our own history -- namely, the Migration Period. In this particular setting, the two fighting factions were keeping others -- various monstrous races -- bottled up behind a mountain range by controlling the key mountain passes. Once one faction disappeared and the other was too exhausted to reclaim its lands immediately, these races began flooding into these unclaimed territories. Here, the escalation of danger followed the pattern of a given monstrous tribe arriving, settling in, but then being driven out by the arrival of a second, stronger tribe, which in turn would be displaced by an even stronger one, thus creating "natural" difficulty tiers for adventurers as they ventured further from the safety of their forts and frontlines.

Another idea I toyed with in an unrelated campaign was setting the game in the world's subarctic regions. The PCs would need a compelling reason to venture into the wilderness -- a rare resource only obtainable there or the like. However, the closer to the pole they would venture, the more hostile the environment would become, the less sustenance they could find and, concurrently, as conditions became too deadly for regular fauna, it would "logically" give way to magical creatures and other supernatural horrors wandering the eternal ice fields.

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While it doesn't fit with the D&D so much, if you had a planet with uneven sun exposure, it could well be the case that as you go further in the direction of the greatest exposure, you come under increasing pressure from the fauna that live there. You can retain or discard the standard day/night cycle or even seasons, based on the direction of travel, without it ever breaking the planet's own internal logic. This works best if the players are in an equatorial region, moving in either direction.

Even without magical creatures, most real world animals are more dangerous if you've not encountered them before. If someone from an arctic region, used to fighting bears and the occasional penguin, were to come into contact with rhinoceri, crocodiles and dropbears, they would have no tactics and knowledge of how to defeat these new and terrifying enemies. Also, the very fact that the animals and people of the adverse climate are adapted to the environment makes them deadly enough.

Secondly, if you're looking to add some less standard play to your game (Ryuutama style), you can have a lot more interaction with the deadly environment itself. Heat exhaustion, thirst, quicksand, blizzards and the like would all be just as deadly as any level appropriate encounter, with the added bonus of total GM control; if the party starts to flail, you can offer reprieve in a much more fluid way than saving them from a poorly-aimed combat encounter.

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I would have to support both kaine (point 3) & Danny Reagan (his first paragraph), with a few minor modifications.

The easiest way of explaining why hostile creatures & related conditions, (leaving out the environmental factors of survival), would increase as the characters went farther away from their starting point is: 1. an aggressively hostile world 2. population centers of hostiles

Hostile World
Each city or town would have to be cut out of the hostile world (hostile monsters, beings & wildlife killed or run out of the area, traps cleared, etc...). If a city or town were to be abandoned for some reason the hostile world would eventually reclaim it, (or quickly if a tribe of orcs etc... came to loot & stay). This is why it should be a fairly hostile world to start with... in the real world this could take a lot longer (until the appropriate habitat developed) additionally there is not near as much in the way of hostile creatures as in a typical fantasy world...

The farther you went away from the town the higher the risk, (towns would fairly naturally be avoided by hostiles as it generally doesn't make sense for them to risk their lives for territory that is defended & patrolled... easier is better in the 'natural' order of things).

Population Centers
The other part to this is that, once you get so far out into untamed land, the risk would actually stabilize, with the exception of getting closer to a population center (den/hive/nest/village/etc...) of hostile creatures. In this case, just as is the case with hostiles getting closer to a 'civilized' town, the risk of running into the specific hostile creatures inhabiting that population center, & the risk that they will be more likely to fight you to the death, increases the closer you get to the center... of the errr population center.
NOTE: This concept still holds true with nations or large groups of hostiles... if there are A LOT of orcs that have defined their territory to be rather large (think of a province or state, or even a country in modern terms), if orcs are generally hostile to the characters, then entering their territory would increase risk & the farther in/closer to actual population centers you got, again, the higher the risk, (provides a means of explaining this on an even more broad scale).

It's my opinion that those two mechanics: a generally/aggressively hostile world, and population centers of hostiles, is enough to explain the increases in a logical enough way that it doesn't feel contrived (assuming that's what you are going for... which it sounds like you are...).

Hope that helps.

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1) Probably the most realistic and novel form of "it gets harder the further you go" is to use the historical model i.e. travel and adventure wear you down and you get weaker as you go along.

There are many, many examples in history of armies, expeditions, merchant caravans etc starting out hail and strong and by attrition on the road arriving tattered and staggering barely able to walk.

Normally, the fictional narrative has the characters and the challenges both start out small and grow increasingly power and more dramatic as the story progresses. In reality, the travelers start out strong but after the wear and tear of travel on people, animals and vehicles, fights, accidents disease etc, they get weaker. Challenges they would have brushed aside at the beginning can kill them towards the end.

It's a complete inversion and feels emotionally unsatisfying. In the classic dungeon scenario, it would be like having a boss in the first chamber, with the characters losing xp or levels as they progress (simulating injury) and in the very last room, getting wiped out by a couple of Kobolds. Yeah, it's realistic but we don't play RPGs to experience reality.

2) Changing climate. One earth traveling north or south 2000 miles can take you from mild temperate zones to tropical jungle or freezing polar regions. In either case the going gets harder. In a magical universe, each shifting climate would have it's own creatures or races to battle. As the characters got further and further from their homeland the combination of climate and the unknowns of dealing vastly different life forms, races, magics etc would increase.

There wouldn't be a focal point, just increasing maladaption and functional ignorance.

3) You could have a single enemy that grows in power overtime. E.g. The characters have an enemy who raises up an spirit entity from another realm to kill them. The spirit knows little of the story world so it starts out weak and naive. Each time it tries to kill the characters though, it learns a bit more. As the story progresses, the spirit and it's attacks (direct or via proxies) grow more and more powerful and sophisticated.

You could substitute anything for the spirit entity as long as it learned as interacted with the characters growing more threatening overtime.

The big advantage of this scenario is that its really about changes over time instead of space. You could set it in a travel scenario but you wouldn't have to. The characters could remain in a fixed location and just suffer repeated attacks, each more deadly than the last.

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I run a West Marches game on Roll20; I have 20+ players and we play 3-4 times a week using 5e D&D. We are currently on session 43 and going strong.

My answer to the 'why?' concerning zones of danger is to use discontinuous magic; in my game magic is not present everywhere at the same levels. In some places you can only cast level 0 spells and others level 9 spells, with everything in between. Civilisation is always concentrated in the low magic zones because powerful monsters hate going into low magic zones. This is because, for example, that a Dragon cannot fly in a low magic zone because Dragon flight has to be partially magical as no beast that big could possibly fly according to natural law.

This achieves two things: my players can tell roughly how dangerous an adventure is going to be by travelling there and measuring the power of the aura with a Laen Glass; a flask containing a fluid that glows softly in the presence of a magic aura. The intensity and colour tells someone skilled, something about the prevailing aura and its source.

Secondly; the auras mean that adventures in civilised areas become possible because magic can't mess up the scenario any more. No more invisbility or divination to spoil your plans. Now the PCs have to work no matter their level. And it also means that civilised folk have no magic or magical defences and aren't really interested in it; which explains why there are few adventurers.

You might ask about balance issues with spell casters; but if carefully designed, it is just another incentive for players to go further out as they level up; otherwise they can't use their most powerful spells.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding Stephen! $\endgroup$ – fi12 Jun 6 '16 at 18:28
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Western Marches campaigns that I have seen tend to have a natural border (such as an ocean or mountain range) that provides more linearity to the danger. Such that moving away from the central city (which is snugged up against that border) increases danger, but so does moving away from the border itself. This represents the Western Marches backstory which stipulates that it is a border town of a greater power.

++-----------------+
A|                 |
A| ^               |
A| |               |
A| |               |
A| |               |
A| |               |
A| |               |
A| C------------>  |
A|                 |
++-----------------+

If you want a perfectly radial increase in danger however, consider displacing your city to another, more dangerous, plane. Say a magical cataclysm takes place (hello campaign opener!) and displaces the city of Genericity to the plane of Wyrdnez. The effects of the transport merge a section of the normal plane with Wyrdnez, decreasing in strength the farther you get from the epicenter (Genericity). So the farther you get from the city, the more strange (and dangerous) the world gets, on a smooth gradient. In addition, even when you get past the physical effects of the merge, the natives of Wyrdnez give the area a wide berth, continuing the gradient of challenge past the initial merger.

+------------------+
|                  |
|        ^         |
|       :|:        |
|      :.|.:       |
|     :..+..:      |
| <-----+C+------> |
|     :..+..:      |
|      :.|.:       |
|       :|:        |
|        v         |
|                  |
+------------------+

Over time, the two planes integrate better as the denizens of both acclimate to the change. The challenge could increase over time as the inhabitants of Wyrdnez get organized to try to exterminate the tainted land (Genericity) in their midst.

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I can't think of a reason for direction to equate to danger or at least I can't see that being a legitimate reality at all times.

If you have a fortress in which an evil overlord lives and you are trying to topple him, logically yes, it should be more challenging the closer you get.

But you ask about danger, in a direction without the fortress (focal point)...

One thought that comes to mind is a world where good is in one direction, and bad is in the other direction. Maybe "good" armies have fought the "bad" armies up into the mountains. Or how about this scenario. In the west is a mountain range with many active volcanoes.

In the east it is sunny and nice out. (see the sun there) The volcanoes create a constant cloud of ash that the farther west you go completely block out the sun. There is no way for human life to exist there, no crops etc etc etc. Now you just need a set of monsters that require darkness to thrive (or heck even be present). So essentially the farther into the ash cloud, the more dangerous things get. You could even have the ash cloud move east seasonally with winds or something maybe.

In this setting Undead, Drow and other underdark creatures could all be used easily. Been a while since I looked at the monster manual but I am sure you could find others with affinity for darkness.

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If you want the danger to be unrelated to geographic location/distance but you still want it to increase over time. Consider something like the wrath of a diety or other sinister power; as the adventurers overcome obstacles the villain sends increasing challenges to thwart his adversaries.

For a more "scientific" approach consider Futurama's take on time travel duplication which is dealt with by physics applying a greater "doom" effect to time duplicated individuals. This effect continues to build up until the doom levels kill off the affected individual.

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