Delving into the West Marches RPG Campaign Style

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About a year ago there was a notable resurgence of an old RPG campaign style dubbed West Marches within the tabletop roleplaying game community, especially in the Dungeons & Dragons circles. This happened to be the first time I had heard about this method of play and decided to take a stab at it. In this article, and others to come, I will be opening up about my experience of building a play area within a sprawling campaign, my reactions to the dozens of sessions, and what I did to make this campaign style something more in-line with my taste as a Game Master.

West Marches RPG campaign style
In the West Marches campaign style, don’t expect your RPG adventurers to always find evenly matches encounters out in the wilds and dungeons!

Campaign style basics

I would be remiss if I did not recount the tenets of such a campaign style. There are three basic rules that can help you understand the framework of the original West Marches:

  1. There is no central group, story or schedule
  2. Players initiate all instances of play
  3. Adventure only happens in the West. These points happen to be very contrary to our normal views of tabletop roleplaying games but come with many benefits. 

West Marches benefits

I have been playing and running campaigns for about sixteen years now. This comes with it that I’ve had a lot of people at my table. In the information age, I have the luxury of being able to keep in touch with every player I’ve ever had. This means I have a lot of people I love gaming with, but with a traditional campaign style, its just not feasible to game with them all. I could run five narrative campaigns, but that is a lot of writing if I did five unique storylines. I love writing for D&D, but that is a tremendous workload.

This large player pool feeds directly into what the biggest benefit for me was: the fluid nature of play scheduling. After being declared an adult and therefore having to do adult things while upholding an adult schedule made it pretty difficult to get a consistent weekly game going. Even moreso when you consider trying to align the schedules of five adults. But what could 20 adults do with proper scheduling and organization when specific days no longer mattered? Players post what they want to accomplish and what day/time they want to get it going. I get to see the party make-up and what their goal is ahead of time. It’s wonderful for GMs because you don’t have to question what you need to prepare before session. They’ve laid it all out there and ideally, all players are excited to check it out.

Where to start?

This incredible map was drawn by Redditor Klokwurk, inspired by Matt Colville’s Collabris stream where he and viewers created a fantasy setting together. Perfect for a West Marches campaign.

I knew for this to be successful, I needed to prepare, and I mean a LOT of preparation. I wanted to evoke in my players the sense of wonder and mystery exploring the wilderness should. I decided early I didn’t want to hand my players a map and I wanted no NPCs to have any idea about what goes on beyond the walls and into the west. This would keep the focus on exploration and have players out there uncovering secrets and slaying foes.

I made myself a personal map to keep everything in order and plot out territories that, with a bit of gradient to it, would be divided into areas appropriate to certain level characters. I populated the overworld with random encounters; mostly aggressive wildlife, but also some variety with passive creatures like grazing herd animals and more mischievous beings like pseudo dragons. I worked out a system of rolls and tables to generate these encounters. I use these results to craft unique encounters, so if a pack of wolves came up at the same time a pixie did, I would figure out how these forces would react to one another and the party.

The bulk of the time was spent creating dungeons. Maybe not always dungeons per se, but areas like caves, ruins and even a few proper dungeons for players to find and explore.

I always call back to the original Legend of Zelda and how exciting it was to uncover a secret entrance into a dungeon, not really knowing if you had what it takes to deal with what lay within. These hidden alcoves are where I would write individual stories of who created them and how they came to be.

Was it some ancient cleric who built a shrine to their deity? Or maybe an evil bard wanting a sanctum outside the view of prying eyes of commoners to conduct dark symphonies. It was going to be up to the players to find little clues to build the small narrative once collected and pieced together. There wasn’t some grand, overarching plot to defeat. Yes, there would be creatures to kill and treasure to loot, but many players would find simple joy in peering into the story of an ancient scene and piecing everything together.

With the plan of no villages out in the West Marches, I saw an obvious problem of ignoring the social pillar of play. In an effort to rectify this and create diversity in challenge, I created what I refer to in my notes as encampments. These would be groups of sentient humanoids working together like hobgoblins, goblins, orcs, etc. These would be dangerous foes due to their tendency to work together, but also be groups to talk and barter with. Ideally these encampments would reward players who still wanted to converse with foes in character and take advantage of them putting effort in building their diplomatic skills. With a basic framework of what I wanted and filling in dozens of areas with interesting encounters and more tables I could count, I was ready to invite some players. Would they like it? We’ll find out — next week.

Delving deeper

What do you think? Is this something that interests you? Have you run or played in a West Marches style campaign? Let me know in the comments below. Next article we’ll go into the act of play within the campaign and the deficits I and my players learned from the experience. Don’t forget to check out more articles here and if you have the time, peek out our Patreon and see how you can get more roleplaying tips, tricks and content. Thanks for reading and we’ll see you next time.

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Follow Jacob Kosman:
Child of the Midwest, spending his adolescence dreaming of creating joy for gaming between sessions of cattle tending. He holds a fondness for the macabre, humorous and even a dash of grim dark. Aspiring designer spending most of his time writing and speculating on this beautiful hobby when he isn't separating planes.

2 Responses

  1. Eli Walgrave
    | Reply

    The social aspect is still very heavily in play in a West Marches campaign. The focus, however, is shifted quite a bit. Instead of characters developing as they interact with NPCs, they are defined with how they interact with each other. The changing party nature of the game facilitates this. I, personally, like the idea of using Microscope inspired “Scenes” where one player proposes their scene, others decide if they want to join, and then they play out the scene. I usually reward this with a reroll.

    I also like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles on the Gamecube. After each area, your character would receive a letter from someone they had either met or from their family. I would use this by giving them letters as they returned to town at the end of a session.

    They are free to organically develop their character in relation to the people they travel with.

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