West Marches RPG campaign style

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We continue this archiving of my experience running a West Marches adventuring campaign style and if you haven’t read the first article and second article, you really should for context. My tabletop roleplaying game background is one that heavily focused on narrative and story. With that being said, this new RPG campaign style is a bit of a departure. This article will focus on the portions of the West Marches formula that I fell in love with, the major changes I made and the additions I constructed to bring the game closer to what I consider makes an enjoyable campaign style.

West Marches RPG campaign style

West Marches and RPG pillars of play

Elevating the social pillar

One of my favorite aspects of an RPG is the ability to have a true conversations with characters within the world. A West Marches campaign style has a focus on adventuring outside of town, so having characters discussing information with NPCs in town was something I wanted to avoid. I wanted social interactions to stay focused on the characters and to infuse as much agency I could into those players. Having NPCs giving them quests and information felt like I would be undermining that goal. Encouraging player interaction was paramount as not all players are innately inclined to communicate with their fellow players, especially when it comes to doing so in character.

Awarding experience for preferred actions is a great way to encourage that style of RPG play. The basic step I took to lift up the social pillar for the West Marches campaign was to award experience to every character in session, any time a player shared information, had a simple conversation or just simply played their character’s traits. Awarding the experience to every character for any instance of this meant that players who preferred to not play in this manner were not penalized and instead gained experience for letting other players enjoy this campaign style. This had the added benefit of being an incentive to players, allowing them to more often discuss their current and previous situations while in session, teaching other players of the dangers that awaited them.

The much larger system that was developed to increase player interaction was the creation and deployment of a meta currency. Dubbed Hero Tokens, this currency was used to get minor buffs and benefits during sessions. These tokens were normally awarded for playing, but also given out for posting session recaps for everyone to read. These tokens give a small push to players to keep the conversation going, especially outside of session, so that they can gain a boon in session.

Elevating the exploration pillar

West Marches RPG campaign styleIt’s not really a secret that, like many systems, D&D has a high percentage of its rules dedicated to how we resolve combat. Many of the rules that cover the exploration pillar are sparse and built into it is the expectation that the Dungeon Master fills in the gaps. This has been, in my experience, totally functional and enjoyable in a more standard RPG campaign style with a single table of players where rulings can be a bit more on the fly and the focus leans heavily away from detailed traveling in the wilderness. For our purposes, I felt the need to make the world just a bit more unforgiving, adding small mechanics like checking for weather and mishaps during the course of travel. All of it revolves around the players making skill checks against DCs that vary depending on the terrain they’re exploring.

Maintaining food stores by preparing and foraging as well as tracking ammunition also have a bit more of a focus in this campaign style than I’ve done in the past. Weather has had an interesting impact, whether its as simple as storm clouds covering up the bright sun to the relief of a drow character or as demanding as a blizzard in the dead of winter.

An unintended but welcomed boost to exploration was the impact that characters have on the world. Fireballs burning in a forest or clearing out a dungeon has ripple effects to the various areas in the RPG campaign world. Players exploring areas where other groups have been sometimes creates even more intrigue if these new adventurers are unaware of how the changes done to the location came about. This gives character actions a much deeper impact, forcing them to think about their choices and reflect on their place in these ancient ecosystems.

Sharpening the combat pillar

In contrast to the other pillars, combat needed no changes. Quite the opposite in fact. Previously when I would DM with a group of five players, a lot of rules got softened or thrown out for the sake of simplicity or because it slowed down play. While this was inconsequential in a standard campaign style, when dealing with 20-plus players and even more characters, taking rules shortcuts can reduce the effectiveness, and more importantly, the fun of some players. An easy example in Fifth Edition is the action system and switching weapons. In a normal campaign style, I’m often very liberal with these rules, allowing characters to switch to a different weapon set and attack in the same turn. Doing that here would lessen the effectiveness and incentive to play archetypes like the Thief which specializes in quick hands, switching equipment around in an instant.

In similar fashion, spellcasters need to be very observant about spellcasting rules and components. It’s no secret that spells are very potent and can alter the course of a puzzle or combat with a single flick of the wrist. Quite a few subtle rules were developed to make this high level of power bounded. A simple one is somatic components of spells. Basically, you need a free hand to casts these spells and ensuring characters abide by this can, in a few instances, make the decision to cast a spell a little more interesting. One of the biggest components of spellcasting is the material components. Having a focus makes up for a bulk of this but there are some spellcasters, especially ones that develop the powers after level one, who don’t have a focus (or equivalent item) yet. They may need to procure the funds to get a component pouch but in the meantime need to have these items. Couple this with items that have an associated cost and spellcasting becomes a lot trickier than simply roll damage dice to win.

Delving deeper

What do you think about the West Marches RPG campaign style? Do these changes and additions seem intriguing? Let me know in the comments below. Next week, we’re going to talk more about the West Marches campaign and what happens to it once my desire for larger, more involved narrative becomes too much to bear. Don’t forget to check out more articles here for more RPG 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.

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