Starting new campaigns is always a difficult proposition. You have to figure out who you want to play with, what kind of world the game is going to be set on, but the hardest thing by far is finding a schedule that works for everybody. Adult life is tough, and getting a common day to game with each other is a challenge and is one of the biggest barriers to play. West Marches aims to fix these problems by offering a unique style of play that can accommodate everyone.
What is West Marches
If you already know what West Marches is you can skip this section.
West Marches is a style of play that forgoes the traditional weekly meetup, in favor of playing at any time the Dungeon Master and the payers are available. The players are in charge of much more in a West Marches campaign and decide everything from when they play, where they are going to explore, what they are going to do, and what stories they want to follow. The DM’s job is to simply simulate the world as realistically as possible, and provide the ultimate sandbox for the players to explore.
With the abolition of the weekly game, the group is free to invite many more players than you traditionally see at the table. A normal game is expected to have 4-6 players, while a West Marches game can have as many as 50. Each session will only have 4-6 players, but after the session is over these players will get on the messaging board and tell the rest of the group how their adventure went. If they decide to travel to the forest and find some dwarven relics hinting of an ancient dungeon, other players can form their own group and follow up on that hook, fleshing out the world as a whole.
If you’d like to read more about West Marches, you can read the original notes from the creator of this style of play here: http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/grand-experiments-west-marches/
Starting the March
As a DM, this style of play can be very enticing. You get all of the people you want to play within one game, your players end up competing with each other in an attempt to get the best loot possible, and they get excited about the world and what they want to explore. With more control in their hands, the players will hopefully get more invested in the world. Getting this kind of campaign started correctly is important in giving as much control to the players as possible, and letting them control the campaign.
The first thing that needs to be done is you need to create the world. Creating a world is no easy task, so I would recommend building only the starting area and going from there. West Marches can also be referred to as a Hexcrawl so what I would recommend is getting a sheet of hex paper (or using online tools such as Hexographer) and start with a single hex. Mark that as the starting point, whether it is a small town in the wilds or a gate from the moon colony. Make a few buildings in the town, but don’t spend too much time here as the focus of the campaign should be on the wilds.
After you have your starting location figured out, take a look at the 6 adjacent hexes. These hexes are where you will start the campaign’s adventure, and give your players their first options when it comes to exploring the wilds. Your goal now is to create 6 unique locations that are just begging to be explored. A massive tree filled with monsters, an abandoned mineshaft stuffed with goodies, an abandoned tower with relics of history located inside, or ruins sunken deep in the center of the lake. Include a few locations that are hidden and aren’t immediately available such as a manor that only appears underneath the light of the full moon. Keep the average challenge rating of the area within line of what level the players are. You can increase it as they explore further out into the wilderness. Now stop. You don’t need to do anything else until your players plan their first session with you.
Planning the First Session
When your players finally do decide to get together and do some exploring, ask them where they want to go. Make sure you ask them far enough in advance so that you actually have some time to prepare something. Now, you can create the dungeon that the players are going to explore. You can do this in any number of ways, whether you want to create a massive sprawling mega-dungeon, a quick 5-room dungeon, or a really tough boss fight that your players will have to plan and prepare for. When planning the dungeon, there are some elements that you should try your best to include.
An element that Ben incorporated into his campaign that helped increase the desire for adventuring was adding pocket monsters to his dungeons that were much higher than the average cr of the area. He would create a dungeon and then include a small room that is exclusive to a monster that is much more powerful than everything else in the area such as Banshee in a gnoll den. This room is packed with treasure and magic items that the players could really benefit from, but it’s guarded by a powerful monster way beyond their capabilities. Often, in this kind of scenario, retreat is the only option. This is great because when the players get back to the home base and talk about their adventures they mention the powerful monster guarding the loot. Then other adventurers will want to take up the call and go see if they can get the loot for themselves.
It doesn’t have to be a monster either. Difficult riddles and puzzles can still hide away amazing rooms full of great loot, and if they can get in congrats! Otherwise, they’ll just have to tell the others about it. If you do decide to use a monster, make sure that it doesn’t wander the area. If the monster is a threat no matter where you go the average challenge rating of the area will go up. It should be an optional encounter that they can decide is worth the risk.
Talk About Other Locations
The second thing you should add to the dungeon is by connecting it to another dungeon in some way. You want your players to go from one hook to the next in a natural way driven by their own choices. As long as you include elements that talk about the other dungeons, you can get them to start thinking about future adventures. This also makes the world feel more connected and keeps the campaign from devolving into an adventure of the week game. When the adventurers come back with an ancient dwarven relic they can’t read, they have to find the dwarf in the group who can read it and ask him what it says. Then he can tell them that there is another dungeon located behind the west mountains, and boom, you already have another session ready to go when the players are up to it.
West Marches is a very interesting style of play that I believe more people should consider. It breathes new life into the game for both the players and the DM and promises a game where more people are engaged in the actual events of the game. Instead of people trying to fill a weekly quota, the players feel like they are actually a part of the world and making decisions that matter. West Marches will not play like a typical campaign, and will require different skills to succeed at, but can offer so much to everyone if done successfully. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!