The West Marches Part I: A GM’s Failure
I’m starting this blog with a story about failure. A year or so ago, I tried running a West Marches campaign for my players. I was sold on the promise of a player-driven story, and frankly, I love survival games. I told them what to expect: there is nothing to do in town, you can’t leave the west marches, you are seeking gold and glory, and you’ll be responsible for scheduling games and picking what you want to do.
For this campaign, I decided that my west marches would be on an island. My decision was influenced by a gorgeous module I had found named The Hot springs islands.
The system we used for this game was Dungeon crawl classics, which, at the time, seemed like the perfect system for old school exploration.
The party was forced to sail across the ocean and help the empire in its colonization efforts. As any good DM would do, I crashed their boat on the island and, at this point, the game was working fine. They had something to do – find the colony and escape the deadly monsters of the island.
Sadly, as soon as they reached the safety of the town, everything fell apart. Even when I told the PCs that talking to townsfolks was useless, they still tried repeatedly. They were physically incapable of leaving town without a plot hook thrown in their lap.
So, next session, I prepared some stuff that would make them leave the town. I naively thought: If they find a map and uncover some mysteries, they’ll want to know more about this island! Oh boy, was I wrong. I ended up throwing in some NPCs to talk to, and they got involved in a faction war.
It became the same old game. I tried to throw hints of dungeons and mysteries to nudge them, and they wouldn’t take the bait. I asked, “what do you guys do?” and they stared back at me like deer in headlights.
Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor
Now I want to give it another shot. I thought about it a lot, and I think I know how to fix my mistakes and finally pull off that player-driven campaign!
My goal is to get rid of the big story so that the DM does not need to prep plot hooks, great reveals, complex factions, and political events while players can’t even remember the name of their character. As Ben Robbins said it in his first article about the West Marches: “My motivation in setting things up this way was to overcome player apathy and mindless “plot following” by putting the players in charge of both scheduling and what they did in-game.”
Rant: I’m not lazy. A west March campaign requires as much preparation, if not more. The real advantage, for me, is that my players will be excited to play their adventurer instead of merely showing up and rolling dice when I tell them to. There is nothing I hate more than players not remembering the name of the kingdom they’ve been exploring for ten sessions. #rantover
I read a blog post on Spriggan’s Den about sandbox. It was saying that “move around the map until you find something to do” doesn’t work in a tabletop RPG game because players need a default goal to fall back on.
How he puts it:
“Pure exploration is aimless. And sending the players to do whatever they want in a world they know nothing about is a recipe for getting them stuck in the quicksand of unlimited options. A much more appealing approach to sandboxes is “come for the plunder, stay for the people.”The treasure hunt is a device to get players to start interacting with the world in an easy to grasp and straightforward way so that they get opportunities to form connections with the setting and the NPCs and get dragged into local conflicts.”
I think the default goal of the players will be to find artifacts and resources to help their clan gain an edge against the other factions back home. There will be no time constraints, but the PCs will meet other factions and hear interesting rumors while looking for treasures. The world will not be a pure wilderness. There will be a handful of settlements on the coast and some trade routes inland to trade with natives.
Setting up goals for the system
This article’s purpose is to set up a series of game design articles. Here are the goals and criteria for my system:
1) Players are motivated to get out of town. They are excited to talk about what to do next between sessions.
2) Creating new characters should be fast to accommodate new players, but also because the world should be deadly.
3) The end goal should feel satisfying for the players. Why would they retire their powerful adventurer?
For the logistical stuff, Ben Robbins used an email list. Since we are in 2019, I am considering using Slack and asking players to create accounts with the name of their characters. Discord would also be a viable solution. The best way to communicate between sessions should probably be decided with your players.
Now, I’m doing this series because I already have a few ideas. Here they are in their most simplistic versions:
1) Rumors & Locations: I imagine a deck of 50 index cards with flavor text hinting at particular locations, powerful treasure, mythical beasts, and so on. Even better, to motivate players and trigger debates, I would add on the back of every card which classes would benefit from exploring this rumor further or finding the location. You get one random at character creation, and many more while exploring. For example, if you succeed on a religion check while reading the glyph on the dark temple’s walls, you realize that the ancient text refers to a secret treasure room (draw rumor #217).
2) Creating a stable of heroes: Inspired by DCC RPG’s level 0 creation, I want the player to create four characters with random attributes, and to pick which one they’ll play first. When they die, they can choose the next hero.
3) End goal: Like many other DMs, I bought Strongholds & Followers, Matt Colville’s supplement for Dungeons and Dragons 5e. I want to use it. It’s gorgeous. I think it would be a great end-goal: when you retire your adventurer, you can add a stronghold on the map. Your future characters will receive bonuses when they are your stronghold’s province.
The infamous to-do list
To help me plan, I have listed everything I need to do before running the first session:
1) Character creation system
- Starting loot
- Premade adventuring packs
- Character sheet design
2) Inventory system
3) Buying and selling stuff
4) Create the first region (big enough for a few sessions) with at least 20 associated rumors
5) Character progression and retirement system (I only need to decide on the general concept since the heroes will not retire in their first few sessions)
6) Random encounter system
7) Overland travel, and how to discover secret paths and locations
In the next article, I want to develop the concept of rumors and find ways to create such tales quickly. I will also work on overland travel and random encounter generation as this will be very important at the beginning of the campaign.
In the meantime, I am going to read The Perilous Wilds and watch Dael Kingsmill’s video on overland travel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbODWX9ATBo&t=176s).
If you have a way to create a player-driven game, let me know in the comments or DM me on Instagram. I am always looking for ways to get better.
The West Marches: A Style of D&D Campaign for large groups. https://knightssemantic.wordpress.com/2016/06/01/the-west-marches-a-style-of-dd-campaign-for-large-groups/
Quicksand Sandbox: What are we going to do tonight, Brain …. http://spriggans-den.com/2017/06/05/quicksand-sandbox-what-are-we-going-to-do-tonight-brain/