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Delving into the West Marches RPG Campaign Style: First Adventuring Sessions

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Kobold Press Adventure Module The Tomb of Mercy has Perfect Timing
D&D Etiquette from Metagame to Manners

We continue this archiving of my experience running a West Marches style adventuring campaign and if you haven’t read the first article, you really should for context. In an effort to not only gather my thoughts, but help you decide if this is an RPG campaign style you want to toy with, we are going to dive deeper into this experiment. That’s really what the whole thing has been and what I’ve stressed to my players: this is an experiment. I started running this with strict adherence to what I saw as the core tenets of the RPG campaign style. That’s what we’ll be covering here, my and my players’ reactions to what I saw as core of the prescribed West Marches adventuring philosophy and the beginnings of us altering that vision to our needs.

West Marches observations

Adventuring is dangerous

We were all excited for the first sessions, already having a few scheduled before the campaign was launched. I warned the players about the difficulty of adventuring and that not everything has been placed into the world to be defeated right away. With an excited hop in their step, they take their first steps out into the wilderness. The first travel day goes well, fighting difficult, but not overwhelming fights. The players were proud and ready for more. Then, the night came. In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons the unconscious status effect (sleeping) makes it very easy for attackers to deliver critical hits.

First level characters receiving critical hits is often followed by needing to make death saving throws or, even worse, being eliminated in a single strike. The threat of night, specifically small and stealthy foes, became a huge factor in players preparing for night watch a lot more seriously, but not after damage was done. One thing we learned quickly was even very low challenge rating encounters can be catastrophic when bad rolls and good timing collide. This is obviously inherently no different than any campaign, but was further exacerbated by the isolation that comes with adventuring into deep wilderness.

The biggest, unanticipated danger is how much more difficult it is getting back to town once a character or two dies during the adventure. Situations like this had a very significant domino effect on the remaining party members. Simple fights became more of a stress and night became even more paranoia-invoking as to fully recover from the days events, sometimes they’d have to sleep without someone taking watch. Death became commonplace in the West Marches and it is probably the most recurring aspect of the game coming across my list of things to tweak and tinker with.

Adventuring can be tedious

RPG campaign style
Adventuring party survival can mean taking slow, careful measure of every step. [Art by Clyde Caldwell]
In the beginning, traveling the over world was treacherous, new and mysterious. Over time and with a few levels under their belt, the systems I had put it place had the adventurers fighting quite a few fights that posed little threat to them. It became tedious for not only the players, but for myself as the Dungeon Master.

We were spending more time setting up encounters than actually fighting them. If forced me to eventually re-calibrate my system. Creatures would not just simply mindlessly attack adventurers, but instead take their measure. If they felt they had little chance against a strong party, they would avoid them, preferring to hunt for weaker prey. The number of encounters and the situation these encounters come together in also weights in on whether or not the encounter will occur.

Another thing to consider when going into this style of game is how much emphasis are you putting on the exploration pillar bookkeeping. Tracking things like food, water, ammunition and travel pace. We’re using 5E D&D which does not have the most robust travel rules.

I felt there needed to be more emphasis and drama to travel, so I developed weather and travel mishap rules I bolted onto the side of D&D’s basic travel rules. Just getting the players to the adventuring sites is where I had to put a lot of my focus in changing the system. Whatever system you use might change this focus, but inevitably you’ll need to alter or add rules to more fit inline with your group’s goals and style of play. Once the players get to the sites, then the issues shift.

I can say, as a DM in this West Marches campaign, when multiple parties are repeatedly going to the same area (or even the same parties), it can be a bit tedious describing the same rooms in a dungeon over and over again for weeks. It was important for me to always remind myself that a few players in the party hadn’t been to these locations yet and needed the information. Something I didn’t expect but that you should keep in mind as a player or DM in this RPG campaign style: prepare for repeat information. This does have the benefit of playing into another tough point.

Adventuring can be confusing

D&D art
Classic Erol Otus cover art from the D&D Expert Rulebook. [Art by Erol Otus]
One of the major tenets I wanted to uphold going into this was, “Never correct my players.” A large portion of this style game is the metagame that comes with it. I know that’s mostly a dirty word these days, but I mean it in the literal sense, not the “game-ist” definition. The game that exists above the individual sessions, which is the procuring and dissemination of information.

Sharing information ensures conversation is happening outside of session. When more people are interacting outside of session, the more excited they are about getting into their next one. The more information shared also meant players would be more prepared. Ideally, only a single group should ever be caught on the back foot by any individual encounter. Once that experience is shared, the other players will be better tactically prepared.

The problem comes when the players share incorrect information.

Whether from poor DM description, player attention, or the simple miscommunication pitfalls that litter our hobby, players get information wrong. Once this misinformation is shared, it creates a wave of confusion or at worst, a panic from rumors. I have had a character warn of threats of war and be the catalyst to a brutal year of guerrilla conflicts because the misunderstood a diplomatic discourse with a hobgoblin general.

The important thing was to maintain my will and not correct anyone. Difficult, but it does create a lot of interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, situations. Rumors and myths begin to manifest themselves as the characters try to make sense of the world they are exploring.

Delving deeper

What do you think about the West Marches RPG campaign style? How would you handle these adventuring situations? Let me know in the comments below. Next week, we’re going to talk more about the campaign experiences and what happen when I became comfortable enough to make major changes to the structures. 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.

3 Responses

  1. Great article! Enjoyed the read!

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