Now that the gloves are off I feel free to run wild.
There's something up with blogger. I can't seem to compose in "compose" mode, and the sidebar on this blog is screwed up - its been moved to the bottom of the page, presumably because blogger is rebooting. Been off and on like this all week. But still, I know enough HTML to get by.
I don't know how many gentle readers have played Civilization IV. It isn't that I think the game is the greatest ever made, but the fellows did their homework and it is a great template to talk about a wide variety of things ... not just the things themselves, but even the way those things play out inside the game. For example, the Settler unit. At the beginning of the game, you do not start with a village, you start with a Settler, allowing the freedom to choose what exact spot on the map pleases you for your main city. It's the sort of flexibility that is largely missing from most games.
Settlers and the process of settling have been a central element of storytelling for thousands of years (its the main theme of the Bible's first five books). Regions with vast hinterlands, such as Russia or America, were defined by the process of loading up animals and wagons and 'conquering' the wilderness, and that's how we tend to see settlers now - mostly in terms of the Old World settles the New World formula. Wikipedia makes a distinction between 'settlers' and 'indigineous peoples,' since in most every historical case this has been the central conflict. Joshua and the other Judges and Kings must clear Canaan, the Australians must push off the Aborigines, the Europeans seize lands from the Amerindians and so on.
But of course, in reality the indiginous peoples were settlers too, going back a long, long time ... and they did not set out to conquer new lands for fame and wealth, but because the old lands were full of people and not enough game. At some point, a given clan is too successful, gains too many offspring, and a change in the environment causes the local game to drop substantially in number ... and so part of the clan acknowledges that things must be better elsewhere, they pick up everything they'll need and try their luck with the next valley over. Or the next valley beyond that, until they find a valley that's empty and has enough meat and vegetable matter to support them. Thus it is that all mankind springs forth from Australia until they occupy nearly everywhere.
The question is, why is the settler ideal not more central to D&D? Wagon trains certainly made good stories in their day, and we still like that motif for ships heading out to other planets. Has it occurred to anyone that very rarely does someone make an adventure - or initiate one, in a sandbox - that involves getting a load of settlers out of this place and into one far away?
One thing about the wagon train ... we are a lot more interested in the 'getting there' part of the story than in the actual settling. Getting there sounds interesting - fight off some natives, some animals, lose a person or two to disease, lose a wagon over a cliff, have sex with a girl and so on. The actual settling part sounds boring and doesn't hold our attention, so the movie always ends with the expected shot of the new village, colony, what have you, and everyone happy and holding hands while they look out at the camera from their pile of supplies and their hastily established temporary shelter. We don't care what happens next. There's probably a lot of work to be done, but we're satisfied the drama is over.
In Civ IV, when your old village creates a new settler, the first thing you want to do is get that Settler established in a new location so that it can start building and so you can pop a military unit on top of it. Though the Settler climbs over hill and dale, across rivers, through jungles, striving towards the oasis in a desert or the uninhabited coastline - you get NO feeling whatsoever in that game that your Settler is on an 'adventure.' The game gives you the big picture, that Settlers are there to seize and expand territory, to build cities, to enrich the state, etc. About the only drama you feel in the actual travelling is that the Settler is vulnerable and very easily made dead ... so you don't waste time about it and you don't send the Settler off alone.
Seems to me there's a lot of ground there for player characters in a sandbox wandering about trying to think of something meaningful to do. But it must be understood that in a medieval society settlers don't just sprout from the roads. Travel WAS dangerous, and most people - even if they did want to move on - would be loathe to do so.
So when you conceive of your "Borderland" adventure, the very simple one where the party stumbles out into the wilderness to kill things the law doesn't protect, to bring them back in order to buy more stuff to kill more things to buy even more stuff to kill even more things, consider a venture into the heart of empire, the steady gathering of people to make good settlers. The selection process to find a willing blacksmith, armorer, assayer or competant sage; the purchase and allocation of goods and transport; the clearing of the road throught the kingdom, as its necessary to pass by towns with your charged populace without rousing the panic and anger of the locals; and finally the arrival at the borderland, the establishment of a piece of land, the struggle to feed all these people and their necessary defense from what used to be bags of water that were killed for treasure (humanoids like orcs and so on). Of course, for all that, you'll need a DM who can see beyond split-open-bag = experience ... and you'll need to realize that the art of settlement is more complicated than just cutting down trees and planting.
Part of the real crime perpetrated against D&D is the idea that it must be a linear arrangement of events, like the course from the beginning to the end of a story. Or even that it is a host of scattered cameos, isolated onto themselves and without much import beyond the fact that they were interesting for a time. D&D has the potential to look into the big picture, too, the art of development and creating a personal footprint on the world, to change the world, not just be a passenger in it. How would it be if you could get out of your seat in a movie, walk onto the screen, slap the stupid actor carrying the idiot ball, point a pistol at the people you prefer and MAKE them apply themselves to something more substantial? "No, no, we're not going this way with what we know here, we're going that way - you, get some guns up here, put that girl on a goddamned train and someone get me a sandwich! We have work to do."
D&D is hands on. The work is the drama, not just getting there. You'll never realize the full potential of this game until you, the player, learn that you ARE the Settler.
'Course, you're the warrior too, but that's another post.