In my copious spare time I’ve been kicking around an idea for a West Marches style Electric Bastionland game. Short explanation: Electric Bastionland is a deeply weird minimalist urban exploration fantasy game; West Marches is a campaign style in which there’s a large pool of players who self-organize self-directed game sessions, designed to lessen the load on the GM. The driving motivation for Bastionland PCs is paying off crippling debt (oh, so it’s a reflection of 2020!) which works just fine for a player-driven game.
Since I’ve been wanting to play Bastionland for a bit, and since West Marches is an intriguing campaign style, I was pleased to realize I had a good match on my hands. Here’s how I put them together and started fleshing the idea out.
A few weeks ago, I was sketching out a Bastionland Borough, which is your basic unit of space in the game, and I decided to base the geography on San Francisco’s Sunset district. Stamen has this ridiculously pretty watercolor style for OpenStreetMap, so I yoinked that and rotated the map 90 degrees for laughs. It came out pretty cool.
A week or so after that I said “wait, I could use that concept extended to the whole city.” Writing up Boroughs for all of San Francisco seemed really time consuming — how do I give players freedom to go wherever they want and still plan ahead? That’s exactly a West Marches thing. I searched for a San Francisco neighborhood map and found one, which turns out to be a stock photo so I’ll just link to the site.
I took that map and turned it into a node map for easier planning. I didn’t use all the neighborhoods — that’s a pretty big map — and I fudged some things. In particular, I cut out a lot of the hills around Mount Davidson, to create an impassable space in the middle of the city. Next, I color coded Borough. Any Borough with two or fewer links to other Boroughs is isolated, so likely to be really weird. On the other side of the spectrum, Boroughs with six or more links are going to be super-busy; I wound up with six of those. Boroughs with five links will be busy but not quite as central. I have eight of those. By the by, credit to Klil Neori for the cool “Cold-End Gate” name.
This is awesome. I already have a central busy area to the East — I’m gonna drop the rotation conceit — and a secondary busy area to the West. This is not totally unlike San Francisco in real life. I wouldn’t have thought of Presidio Heights as an isolated community on my own, but clearly it is. I love that there’s emergent setting design happening already. I can already see that I missed out on Japantown. (I need to think about whether or not that should be populated by one of the weird non-human types in the game; there’s obviously some risk of doing that poorly.) I also need to do a pass and tweak all the names. It’s going to be obviously based on San Francisco, but the game is Saint Freeman’s City. Whoops, and I missed coloring Lake Shore, but plenty of time to go back and fix that.
I’ve got more than enough to start sketching in details. I’ll start the PCs in a corner, probably down around Stonetown, and with a couple days of warning they can explore in any direction they want. The rule is probably that any expedition one hop away from known territory is reasonably easy; going two hops is possible but expect consequences. I also think some links are riskier than others, which will also give the map more texture, but I’ll define that later too.
Bastionland Boroughs are simple to build. You need transport routes, landmarks, complications, treasures, a bunch of personalities, shops, and a random encounter table. I’m not about to build all that for every single Borough right off the bat. Stonetown needs to be built in full, assuming that’s the home base. The important question:
How much do I need for a Borough so that I can fill in the rest in 2-3 days?
If I put in the time to write up that much for all the Boroughs within two hops of Stonetown, I’m probably OK. It needs to be detailed enough to spark my imagination. Side note: I should just have a big list of weird encounters that I can pull from to build a specific encounter table.
For a first cut, let’s say I need three things.
First: is it high, low, or broken? This is a class issue, in the Marxist sense rather than the Gygaxian sense. It maps to one of the random tables in the rules.
Second: what are three touchstones? This is again a random table, although I’ll select a couple of them and roll for a couple of them. I want some control over the way each Borough feels. Touchstones are defined as “common things affecting peoples’ lives, and frequent topics of conversation.”
Third: what are the three most important things to people who live there? Could be NPCs, could be places, could be abstract concepts. I don’t have a table for this although I could use the random Sparks table if I wanted.
Let’s try that out for West Portal, which used to be one of my favorite places to visit in the city. In the real San Francisco, it’s a bit out of the way and fairly quiet. It’s also one end of a light rail tunnel. I’m going to say it’s a Broken Borough, because players should have someplace a bit dicey to visit early on.
- The Living City > Street Fairs
- Academia > Odd Studies
- Bureaucracy > Breakdown of Council Control
I made up the Street Fairs; the other two are randomly rolled. This works pretty well. The real West Portal doesn’t have a lot of street fairs as far as I know but it seems like a cool peaceful adaptation to change. Probably the breakdown of the local Council means people can’t get permits to set up shop in real buildings any more.
So our three most important things?
- The tunnel which leads to The Underground
- Gavin Penchant’s Council deadlock
- The Feral Factory
I randomly rolled Wild Factory which converted into Feral Factory; the other two are my inventions. Penchant is a Councilmember who figured out a procedural trick that leaves the Council unable to conduct business, and he didn’t figure out a way out of it. People are pissed. The Feral Factory has to be some kind of result of the Odd Studies problem. The Underground is a Bastionland concept; it’s a place under the city where reality slowly breaks down and the Machines live. (I did say this was a weird game, yes?)
I’ll finish up by renaming West Portal to The Western Gate, since it’s one of two known Westside gates to The Underground, and next time I’ll see if I can really use those seeds to stock up the Borough quickly.