Last weekend, a member of my home group ran a one shot game using the final D&D Next playtest packet, and I have to say I was impressed. I found the system general simple enough for me to like it and also that several things it did, such as backgrounds and the way profeciencies work, closely mirrored things I have been wanting to implement in my S&W games as part of an attempt to make them more like WFRP. Naturally, I soon turned my thoughts towards how I would modify the system to run a Dark Country game for my home group.
But home groups are funny things. The G+ group that I've been playing with for the past two years, aside from being very patient with my constant flitting from one setting to the next, has also really really dug the Dark Country. This should come as no surprise as they're made up of people who saw my add for the Dark Country G+ game and went "that sounds awesome. Sign me up!" My Hattiesburg group is, instead, made up of close friends I've had since high school. Because the group is based around our friendship rather than our taste in particular kinds of fantasy games, this means there are some differences
Some players in my home group have never liked the Dark Country, and before last night I was never entirely sure why, even if I had inklings. Sure, some did, but the ones that didn't often were the ones who were most invested in the idea of playing D&D, so if they aren't having a good time it kinda drags the whole thing down. After discussing what I wanted to run with my players last night, I discovered the reasons that they don't like my Nightwick game.
The first, and this was primarily the complaint of a single player - though one who is, again, one of the ones who tends to get invested and thus his complaint is probably worth considering - is that my constant need to limit character options in an attempt to get a specific tone is damaging to game balance, since the game assumes that all options are in play. I don't particularly agree with this, since I think that D&D was, is, and hopefully will always be set up as a tool box for individual groups. Using all the tools in the toolbox is the quickest way to Boring Town imaginable, as it leads to the high fantasy nonsense one sees in post Forgotten Realms D&D. What you leave out is, at least to my eye, just as important as what you put in.
The other complaint, which I think was more broadly held, is that the Dark Country was too shitty, and that there was little sense of progress in the Nightwick Abbey games I've run for them. The most obvious reason for this is a problem I've noticed with my own DMing style over the last year or so: I treat the setting as a noose slowly tightening around the PCs' collective neck. This might not sound like such a bad thing, but I noticed in my Cocanha playtests of Feudal Anarchy that it lead to the G+ group sometimes feeling like they could take nothing but missteps, and in my G+ Dark Country game it eventually led to my having to advance the timeline of the setting by several months in order to avoid all of the adventures suddenly becoming solely about procuring food for the village of Nightwick. This is a problem, I realize its a problem, and I'm trying to figure out ways to fix it.
More importantly though, talking to my players helped me realize another issue they were having, and I think that certain G+ players such as Robert and Zak were having is that Nightwick Abbey's very nature means that one doesn't feel like any progress is happening. In other megadungeons, the dungeon is mostly a static environment. I don't mean that the monsters don't move or that there aren't active factions in the dungeon. I mean the dungeon itself isn't alive. Nightwick Abbey is. So in Greyhawk or Dwimmermount or whatever, clearing an area might not be permanent, but you at least feel like you did something. In Nightwick, on the other hand, the dungeon is still living and still mad at you and still vomiting up monsters, so there's little sense that anything got done, regardless of how much you mapped.
This is something I previously hadn't considered, and would explain my home group's general preference for Uz over Nightwick, even if it often contradicts the problem of limited player options I first identified. There's more of a sense of progress in clearing out a level of the Uz undercity.
Last night I discussed a number of possible options with my players, noting that I would prefer to run something that I made because the thing that I enjoy about the classic D&D settings is that they were created through play. The organizations and historical events in them are a combination of the creativity of the players and the DM, and that is super cool.
So initially I pitched the Wilderlands, since, for that group, there a large part of what I would be doing for that setting was created through play. In my old 3e game, several of their characters are legends if not out and out (minor) gods, and my wife destroyed a giant robot that was rampaging through the CSIO (my co-DM used the stats for the Tarrasque) by rolling 3 20s in a row* while only level 6, ensuring both the immortality of her character and, by the collapsing of the giant robot, the destruction of large sections of that famous city. So the changes made by player character action would, hypothetically loom large over any future Wilderlands campaigns.
But my tastes have changed since I ran the Wilderlands in college. Back then I was primarily interested in Late Antiquity, my intellectual imagination fired by the works of Walter Goffart and Patrick Geary, not to mention Jordanes and Bede. And while I do still clearly enjoy pre-medieval fantasy settings, my tastes, both intellectually and in terms of fantasy fiction, have turned more towards things related to the high to late Middle Ages. I like knights and guilds and medieval depictions of the Devil and fortified manors and even the Church. These are largely incompatible with both the Wilderlands as generally conceived, and, more importantly, the Wilderlands as it is likely remembered by my players.
So I'm not really sure what to do. My G+ players, particularly Michael, Huth, and Zzarchov, would likely prefer that I keep running the Dark Country (and to a lesser extent the Terran Directorate) until Christ in His glory comes to sit in judgement, and I greatly appreciate those players, but as Chris Kutalik has noted on several occasions, there is something about the experience of playing with a face to face group that is just better, even if G+ is a great deal better than other forms of digital gaming.
*I never remember if this was a houserule or an actual rule, but we always said in my group that 3 20s in a row meant that the thing was auto-dead regardless of other factors, much like the similar rule in EPT.