A Multi-GM universe

Before I get into the big topic in the title, I have been reflecting on my last D&D session and why I found it less satisfying than I like. Part of the reason is because it was a string of loosely-connected combat encounters, and the other part was that the combat encounters were boring.

With that in mind, I have been doing some intentional work on sprucing up my combat encounters for the future, including making the setting more interesting. That includes printing up some small scatter terrain to place in the rooms to break up the zone, give people things to maneuver around and interact with, etc. Here is a sample:

Now to the other news. A local gaming store recently relocated to a larger facility which includes a separate room intending for gaming: wargames, card games, and roleplaying games. The owner is planning on having people pay for monthly memberships to use the room, but also wants to hire a number of GM’s to regularly run games there, in particular Dungeons & Dragons. Moreover, he really wants the games to all exist in a shared universe, something akin to the RPGA network, where players could show up to any GM’s game with the same PC and drop them in. A gamer who was also providing a lot of the terrain for the new place had been tapped to start this, and I reached out to him (we had crossed paths once or twice) and began discussing what a multi-GM shared campaign world would look like.

Or rather, what the logistical underpinnings would have to look like. Because coming up with your own version of the “West Marches” isn’t the hard part. It is questions like house rules and magic item distribution rates and having some way for different GM’s to pick up adventures written by other people and run them on the fly. The whole project requires almost a “manual of style” or a “bible” that showrunners use for a series.

So the head person (Jeremy) and I have met a few times, discussed a lot of these details at length, and are laying the groundwork for a long-term plan. The room itself in the gaming store is far from finished so we have a bit of time to get something going, but in the meantime I will share some of the process here, and welcome your feedback as well.


  1. It lends itself well to relatively small dungeons — say, at a 1 square = 10 feet scale, keep dungeons to half a sheet of 8.5×11 graph paper — either 4×11 or 8.5×5.5. At 4 squares to the inch, that’s 16×44 or 160×440 feet, or 32×22 or 320×220 feet. These are each in the neighborhood of 70,000 square feet or 35 typical suburban homes; or a little less than 1.75 acres — enough space for an entire orc tribe’s lair, a small castle, a manor house and walled village, a ruined elven palace, a dwarf mine.

    The thing is, spaces like that are the infrastructure of your world: once built, discovered by players, and emptied of monsters, they’re likely to be reoccupied, like WW I trenches or castles in southwestern France in the 100 years’ war. So having the ability to trade these maps back and forth quickly, and refill them with potential foes, is important. If the players don’t leave a garrison to prevent the dwarf mine from being retaken, or at least lock the door behind them… then it will be retaken.

    This also lends importance to the idea of a sandbox universe. A Thirty mile hex is about the distance that one person can travel on horse in a day; if they’ve got a trio of horses and can trade off, the riders can move 3-4 hexes a day. 4×14 hexes(two weeks of riding) is 56 hexes, 1,680 miles — which is more than the distance from Minneapolis to San Diego, or Miami. A hex “grid” that’s 20×20 fits all of New England and then some — easily enough for all or part of ten kingdoms, and (counting counties as dukedoms, earldom, fiefs, etc), well over 60 smaller fiefs and principalities. You have a lot of potential to fill in a great deal of detail in what feels like a small area.

    Think about movements of goods — merchant caravans? A merchant caravan moves 30 miles every other day: setup, market day, takedown, on the road the next day, repeat for half the year (181 days, half of them on the road=90 travel days). That’s 2700 miles a year… or 90 hexes a year. Another caravan might travel only 1 hex every 3 days, set up in two villages in each hex= 45 hexes a year.

    Now— plot out four such caravan routes, but arrange them so they start and stop in the same place each spring and fall — any place those overlap, you have not merely a market, but a fair. You can even specify fairs for specific goods: horse and other animals here, books and furniture there, bulk food over in this place. No fair lasts more than a week, but all the big merchant houses want to be at them. The trade routes bend to take advantage of them — and that’s where the rumors of war will take hold, as kingdoms buy warhorses and weapons, tents and bulk food for the armies.

    So every GM has to have a portfolio of a kingdoms, a couple of merchant houses, a few fiefdoms, and a humanoid tribe or two — and has to update to the other GMs what those groups are doing. That generates the rumor mill that keeps the game in synch. And you must post the game month and year in the store, so that your weather is relatively consistent.

    • Definitely with the small and restockable locations. With this being a FLGS-based “campaign” with new players being a target demographic, getting a complete “adventure” out of a single session helps people feel like they have “played D&D” versus spending the hours bogged down in minutiae or wandering aimlessly about.

      I like the idea of merchant caravans, though. I need to ponder that.

      • Indeed. I got the idea for the merchants (or peddlers) from a lecture/poetry series I attended called “the old leatherman” in Middletown several years ago. The Leatherman was a fellow who, from the 1820s through 1850s wandered through towns in central-south Connecticut. He had a fixed route, passing through about 15 communities on roughly the same schedule, traveling no more than about 12 miles a day — three days in this town, one day of travel, two in the next, a travel day, four in the next, a travel day, and so on, until he returned to his starting point. He would work odd jobs, but his big thing was that he built tanning frames for the leather from slaughtered cows, set them up in barns and sheds on people’s property, and came back a week to ten days later to manage the next part of the tanning process or turning the leather into belts, straps, saddle and bridle components, and so on. Rather than have an elaborate tanning operation in one place (with the resulting stink and mess concentrated), he brought the basic gear town to town and made what he needed on the spot, spreading out the mess and reducing the stink (and providing communities with the basic parts for simple shoes, horse harness, and more). He’d also work as a farm hand or laborer, and carry letters and small packages and goods faster than the official postal service (and for cheaper). And he did all of this without a cart or horse — just him and an (obviously leather) backpack. He was known by most of the people in most of the communities he visited, and would be a great source of news, rumor and gossip.

        Ten or twelve such “journey-men” working their way through a dozen communities — a leather worker, an herbalist, a midwife or a trainer of midwives, a farrier (horse and cow shoes), a tailor, and so on — would allow a group of communities to have a lot of specialty services without having to support one large town (with guards, city walls, nobles, temple staff, masons, defending clerics and wizards)… and one guy making a lot of short trips village-to-village is a lot less noticeable and will find it easy to hide in a monster-haunted wilderness, than a big town which is obviously a tempting target for a humanoid tribe looking to rule the surrounding landscape.

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