D&D is a fun game, but I couldn't eat a whole one, y'know? It's fun to play a game now and then, but long-term it's a bit unsatisfying. What's great is just to be able to bust out the 3d6's now and then, roll up a character and explore a dungeon for a while. It's fun to prep some dungeons, but doing it on a weekly basis can be a drag. Casual D&D is where it's at. On the other hand, some of the stuff that's fun about exploration type games is only achieved through long-term play: Getting familiar with locations in the setting, sharing stories with friends, developing history with characters, and actually going up a level or two.
It started with reading about Ben Robbins' "West Marches" game, which was a big area of wilderness explored by various PC parties in 3E D&D. While I really liked the exploration and casual play nature of the game, some aspects of it seemed like too much work for me. I didn't want to prepare the whole environment ahead of time, and I was mostly interested in dungeons, rather than wilderness encounters.
What I wanted was a way to have casual D&D play, with a variety of groups, but have each instance of play contribute to a growing environment for play. I wanted the West Marches aspect of looking at a map and saying "I wonder what's over there?", but the ability for the GM to just run with whatever was prepped, rather than having to know exactly what was in each spot on the map. I wanted a way for each character to contribute to the game, even if they died in the first room of their first dungeon. I wanted a persistant and growing world to explore, that the GM could discover as the players played through it.
What I came up with was this: A wiki documenting the adventures of the "Redrock Raiders". The Redrock Raiders are a fictional group of adventurers, mercenaries, thieves and tomb-robbers based in a small fishing village in a fantasy setting. Their village is fortuitously located near the ruins of an ancient civilisation, drowned in long-forgotten cataclysm.
Multiple groups, potentailly with rotating GMs, run adventures in a shared setting, and document their adventures on the site. Players and characters can migrate between groups, playing on a casual basis, and have their contributions recorded and added to the growing "story" of the Redrock Raiders. It is this fictional group that the story is really about. Individual characters come and go, but what matters is the gradual advancement of the Raiders, from disreputable misfits meeting in a Tavern, to (hopefully) respected heroes, operating out of their own fortress.
So far we've played three "adventures", each with a slightly different cast. I've GMed all of them so far, and it might stay that way, but I'd also like to play. What I'm enjoying is the sense of adventure, the importance of exploration and detail. The ever-present mortality of characters forces the players to interact with the fiction in a very detailed way. I wrote on Vincent's blog:
The vast majority of stuff in the world is WAY more dangerous than a first level player character is prepared for, and the only way to give yourself even a slight chance of survival is to avoid using the rules for fighting as much as possible. The result is lots of "Ok, we position by the door. I've got my spear out ready for if it charges, and the elf is gonna shoot it with his bow. If he misses, we're all ready to run."
If you play Basic D&D like a tactical boardgame, you'll lose, every time. The only way to survive is to engage with the fiction, to scramble for every slight advantage, to invest absolutely in the details of how your character moves, the way they're bracing their polearm, the way they carry their kit. It's all vitally important, because if you get it wrong, your character is dead. In play, this is starting to come through, with lots of very tense moments and near misses, as well as cheap deaths at the hands of fate, and lucky escapes.
Running the game, I'm realising that Basic D&D is as much a horror game as anything else, much as early pulp fantasy had a strong influence from horror. Death stalks the characters wherever they go, and dungeons are home to bizzare nightmare creatures who will murder a man without hesitation. You're in the dark, far from home, and surrounded by things that mean you harm. The ceiling wants to eat you.