Meet the Campaign: Intro to West Marches

Seamus and I both came of age at a time where the long-running campaign was considered the platonic ideal of the role-playing game. There’s a lot of historical justification for this; the ‘campaign’ as an innovation in the wargaming space was one of the things that led to interest in the character-driven gaming that eventually became Dungeons and Dragons. The campaign as a procedure within a game, though, has been somewhat of a stagnant thing. Even as games continue to push on notions of advancement and other structures which define how events progress across multiple gaming sessions, it’s still assumed that a long-running game would be played in a series of continuous sessions by a consistent group of players. 15 years ago, a known luminary in the RPG design space ran a campaign that worked quite differently, creating ripples across the hobby. I’m of course talking about Ben Robbins’ West Marches.

Ben Robbins is likely best known as the designer of games like Microscope and Kingdom, and yet the campaign he wrote about in 2007 (recounted on his blog) may be his creation with the widest influence, given its direct utility for systems like Dungeons and Dragons. The notion of West Marches was relatively simple; the game was a sandbox campaign with a large map to explore, but instead of a party of 4-6 players it had a rotating cast of closer to 16. Each session would be proactively planned by players who had a goal in mind given the ingame knowledge they had of potential treasures to find or dungeons to explore. Also, the GM’s role would be as passive as possible; ingame knowledge would be defined by what the players explored (and therefore the GM’s prep), but there would be no quest-givers as such. West Marches fulfilled two different but equally intriguing design goals: First, the game would be driven by exploration above all else, and second, the game could be played by adults with difficult schedules by removing the need for everyone to agree on one set time to play in a given week (or month).

West Marches is a great way to solve two of the group organizer’s biggest problems: balancing everyone’s schedule and making sure everyone gets to play. While some groups may struggle to find players, others (like mine) have nearly a dozen and struggle to both include everyone and manage to actually run the game. Similarly, scheduling is the enemy of all gaming groups, and West Marches provides a tidy solution, both offloading the scheduling effort from the GM and allowing sessions to take place with a subset of players. The downsides of the form also fall on the GM. West Marches is heavily map-driven, making the prep significantly front-loaded. At the same time, having multiple parties potentially venturing through the same areas means that session tracking and post-game prep is also more intense. If you’re willing to put in the work, though, a West Marches campaign can be a uniquely rewarding way to both play with exploration and solve your attendance issues.

The Basics of West Marches

The original West Marches campaign run by Robbins had a relatively simple conceit. The ‘West Marches’ were the last unexplored area on the setting’s continent, and only the hardy (and foolhardy) would dare venture into its monster-infested ruins. The game started in the western-most settlement of civilized lands, and had one basic rule: Going back east to civilization meant retirement, adventure was only found going west. This setup established a few bits of continuity which kept the campaign going and relatively easy to manage. First, all adventure was dangerous and all characters were adventurers. This is more of a pre-game establishment, but simply stating that the characters were motivated to venture forth into danger helped prevent players from creating characters which would disrupt the direction of the game. As a corollary to this only player characters would ever be adventurers, which kept the focus on the players and reduced the need to track significant NPCs. Second, town was always safe. Making the town a safe zone both enabled characters to have a consistent start and end point, as well as reduce the occurrence of events that would happen to both present and absent characters concurrently (in his blog posts, Robbins specifically points out a need to avoid ‘town adventures’ in this sort of campaign). Third, game documentation was specifically the responsibility of the players. This meant that the players were responsible for drawing and keeping the overland map, but also that the players were responsible for writing and distributing session reports. While this does reduce the GM’s workload, it also makes the exploration more exciting when players are empowered to share what they find and track it for themselves.

To take all these ideas and actually start prepping, you can begin with a few things. First you need a conceit. What started the original West Marches off was the notion of a new, unexplored region. As Robbins states on his blog, this region needs to be packed with things to do and find to make exploration exciting. You will likely need a reason that the area is unexplored, though. The basic West Marches conceit works well, though it does imply the need to level-set and discourage or outright disallow returning to civilization. A conceit like the Blood Mist from Forbidden Lands can also do nicely, making the whole continent new, dangerous, and ripe for exploration.

Since exploration is one of the primary goals, most of your prep is going to be driven towards defining the world and making it interesting. You will have to gather your group, and it’s going to be a little different than most campaign starts. You will need more players than a typical campaign; the original West Marches had around 14 and I’d estimate you’d need 6-8 to get at least two reasonable parties going. The key here is flexibility; Robbins describes developing a competitive spirit between groups of his players, but I’d call that optional (though West Marches is probably the best way to inject some competition into an RPG that doesn’t involve PvP). Instead, you just need enough people that the players can form up for a session without too much difficulty.

The last thing you need as a GM is some sort of bookkeeping system. We all know how much we can get away with when it comes to session tracking, but when you’re trying to present a consistent world to multiple overlapping groups of players, you’re almost certainly going to have to do more work. Each location is going to need some degree of tracking to ensure that the efforts and impacts of one group can be seen by another if they pass through the same area. At the same time you’re going to have to employ some behind-the-scenes procedures to ensure your areas don’t stay static. How long will a dungeon remain cleared before some nearby monster sees it as a perfect den? If one group routs some bandits on the road, where do they go?

If I were to run a campaign like this, I’d keep my bookkeeping at a map level; track events in the overworld, and then track events in any given dungeon. When the characters make a big change, note it, and then write a line or two about what happens. Hopefully your post-game prep shouldn’t take too long, because it will make all the difference in how the overall campaign goes.

Post-game prep should also be separated from pre-game prep. Another thing Robbins highlighted in his original posts was the importance of players scheduling their own sessions (within the confines of the GM’s schedule) and doing so far enough in advance that the GM could finish any prep that might have been hanging. This would be a perfect opportunity to fill in sketched out areas as well as consider the consequences of returning to areas some time after they were last explored. If you know it’s been six sessions since there was a party exploring the Crypt of Sighs, that helps you figure out if some monsters have returned there.

If you’re down for doing the work, a West Marches game can both ease your scheduling woes and be a perfect sandbox campaign. If you’re not into straight-up D&D dungeoneering, though, there are some interesting twists on the game that can work nicely.

Adapting West Marches

A West Marches campaign is rooted in D&D, but there are a few ways to take the basic idea and shift it to your preferred gameplay style. You can adapt the West Marches form to different genres, and you can adapt it to different implied storylines as well.

Let’s start with genre. Some transformations are easy; if you want to play a West Marches game in Traveller, just switch out the overland map for a star map and pretty much proceed as normal. I personally think a post-apocalyptic West Marches game could be really neat, it could even use an adapted version of the procedures I outlined in my earlier Post-Apocalyptic Hexcrawl article. Want to try Cyberpunk? Imagine a city whose government has collapsed, and all mapping is so out of date as to be useless. Give your players a subway map and tell them to start exploring. That last one will likely require something a bit different; while urban exploration holds some merit you’re going to have to think about who’s living in your city in a less antagonistic way than you’d consider something like a dungeon. This is where new implied storylines can really make your game pop.

West Marches is at its core about exploration, but the storyline of adventurers cutting a swathe through new territory does seem a little bit colonialist on its face. Consider running a game which takes into account the people already living there. If there are existing settlements in your map, using something like Dungeon World’s settlement attributes can help make tracking the settlements and how they change more interesting. Likewise, if you’re more interested in organizations, procedures like the faction turn from Stars Without Number can provide some great modeling of how the world is changing. I saw another suggestion on Reddit which was intended for Forbidden Lands but could enhance any West Marches campaign; if your world has isolated settlements, consider the consequences of your characters tracing and building trade routes between them, up to and including literally building roads. You can even tie this to an ingame reward of being able to make it further out into the world before needing to resupply and/or turn back.

There’s any number of things you can introduce into your world to make exploration more interesting and engaging, the only limit is how much you’re willing to track. Remember that as you’re trying to run a sandbox and not throw out plot hooks or adventure seeds, player ownership in the setting is going to be one of the only levers you have to keep players engaged and coming back. Let characters explore, and let players see how their explorations are changing the world. The advancement in the map they’re keeping should be just as exciting as any advancement tracked on their character sheet.

A West Marches campaign is a great way to push on the theme of exploration and maybe make your game scheduling a bit easier. The form has been going strong for nearly 15 years, and I’m curious to hear about others’ experiences. Have you run a West Marches game in a system other than D&D? How many players did your campaign have? How long did the game last? While I hope to hear some interesting West Marches stories from across the internet, I’m going to be putting the form to the test myself and running my own West Marches campaign, hopefully in the near future. In the interim, I hope reading about West Marches games has inspired you as much as it has me, and that you all continue to come out, ideas at the ready, to Meet the Campaign!

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