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September 14, 2018

Planning a West Marches Campaign in D&D 5e

Dungeons and Dragons

I mentioned awhile ago in my post about sandbox D&D 5e campaigns that I had an interest in running a West Marches campaign. (un)fortunately I’ve gotten the opportunity to play/DM in a West marches style campaign that spurned from some dumb joke in my group of friends.

The original idea was for everyone to play D&D together, but there’s about 10-12 of us involved in this game. Granted not everyone can make every session but I’ve said before and I’ll say it again DMing for anything over 6 players quickly becomes difficult and sluggish. That’s when we decided to make it much more of a loose game.

West Marches is just that, it’s a style of play where the players decide what they want to do and when you all play. Once a group is all set to go you go off and have your adventure and fun game.

There’s no set schedule or time commitment and as we’ve gotten older it’s gotten much more difficult to stick to a schedule. This is a large part of the appeal of West Marches games in my opinion.

In this campaign we also have multiple DMs meaning that there’s even more flexibility. It’s more of a laid-back game anyways so the door is opened to anyone to DM sessions if they want to.

Enough about me though. If that sounded like a fun time to you, you may want to try running your own West Marches game. Let’s dive deep into what it means exactly and how to create your own campaign!

Elements of a West Marches Campaign

Here’s a great discussion about what defines a West Marches campaign., As with most things in table top gaming, we decided to make some of our own rules and tweak things around. If anything the most important part of a West Marches campaign is the way that sessions are scheduled.

The most important rule is that there’s a reason your character wants to go off on an adventure. This is primarily to avoid people creating characters that won’t mesh well with the group. If you’re playing in the game, you’re adventuring and working together.

  • Each PC has a reason that they’ll work with the rest of the group. Don’t be a jerk.
  • Everyone starts at level 5. (We’ve played level 1 enough).
  • You can roll your stats using 4d6k3 and use Point Buy if you don’t like the outcome.
  • Players determine what they want to do next session and get a group together.
  • DMs determine if they want to have a party size restriction.
  • PCs use milestone leveling and every PC is the same level regardless of how often they’ve played.
  • There is no party. Players determine where they want to explore and when they’d like to play and a DM will run the game for them.

These are pretty standard D&D game rules honestly. The difference is primarily in coordinating everything between multiple DMs and different sets of players.

Ideally, every session is a self-contained adventure or a one-shot. I’m not entirely sure how strict we’ll be with this as of right now. Personally speaking it’s usually difficult for me to build a dungeon for a single session, but I think it’ll be a great challenge and learning experience.

west marches hex map

Hex maps are extremely useful for determining the vast amounts of travel done in West Marches campaigns. Credit to Sp4cE-PiR4Te.

Planning Sessions

I’d like to go into a bit more detail about how to plan a session in a West Marches game since it’s so unique.

There’s no party. Instead the party is formed at the beginning of the session. Obviously there’s going to be a reason you’re working with different people such as being part of a big adventurer’s guild.

In addition to being in a rotating party of adventurers, your sessions won’t always be at the same time on the same days.

There are essentially two elements of planning your next session in a West Marches game. The first is an in-game destination. The second is a place and time to play the game.

We’ve done this through Discord. We have a text channel in there where we can talk about the game in general and play our next session. People can say where they’re interested in going and form groups.

Once a group is formed a DM will take their group on an adventure. Everyone has some fun, learns some more about the world, and earns experience and treasure.

After the session your players may have a better idea of where they’d like to explore next. The cycle then repeats itself as they then state their intent and other players will join in if they have time and are interested in the adventure.

Honestly, it’s very easy and I’m really enjoying this type of ad-hoc gameplay. I can prep on my own time since there’s no deadline. Plus, I can join in on a game another DM is running whenever I feel like it. It’s really a win-win situation for me.

Campaign Prep

Lore

I’ve found that lore is always a very tricky thing to write. It’s always useful for the DM as it can help you understand how different characters act or react and how the world you’ve made works.

Practically speaking though, players can be hit or miss with how much they care about lore, especially in the beginning of a campaign. I find that caring and understanding the lore is more of a slow burn for most groups.

That being said this isn’t a typical campaign you’re planning. West Marches games are exploratory by nature. The lore is a big backdrop that will have a lot of importance in the campaign.

My advice is to have at least a timeline or a rough outline done. Important dates and events should be detailed in there and you can share some or all of it with your players. They can dive right in, or they can reference it as they become more invested in the game.

It was also a bit easier to write the lore with multiple DMs and our players chiming in. We used World Anvil to collaborate and it’s worked pretty well so far. It’s extremely dense though with so many different options. Honestly it might have too many options for my tastes!

Session 0

I’ve talked about how to run and why you should run a session 0 beforehand. I stand by that and we tried in good conscience to get everyone online to do one. Unfortunately with such a large group it was pretty much impossible to do so.

Instead, we opted to talk about everything in various group chats and used our Discord to keep track of everything. Once that was done we summarized the rules for the game, character creation, etc. and pinned it to the text channel so everyone can look it over.

It was basically the same thing as a session 0 but was done over a few days and in different conversations. It’s just very difficult to get 12+ people together and roll characters up.

Planning the World

West Marches city gates

Plot hooks are important for any campaign. West Marches plot hooks are found mainly through exploring the world around you. Art by Lawrence Mann.

Planning out your world, creating maps, and determining what the overarching theme of the game will be is always important. For a West Marches campaign I’d say it’s even more so.

At the very least you should have a rough idea about what each major city, town, or village has to offer. You should know what sorts of political, economic, social, and military issues are pertinent to the present day as well.

All of this information is extremely useful for planning out your games. West Marches games focus heavily on exploration and learning about the world. The players should have ample issues to throw themselves at. Plus, it makes the world feel more alive and interesting to explore.

I’d also recommend not making a world that’s too big. We’ve definitely bit off more than we can chew so to speak, but I’m sure we’ll cobble it up after session 1 when people get much more invested in the game.

Quests!

As I’ve mentioned before, ideally your quests are going to be self-contained. However long your sessions are is how long you have to get to the quest destination and complete the mission. This can be difficult and can feel a bit restrictive if you’re doing a session that lasts 3 hours or less.

In fact, I’d probably say that 3 hours is the absolute minimum that I’d run a game for in a West Marches campaign unless the group was willing to split the session into 2+ days. It’s difficult to role-play travel and a quest in such a short amount of time.

Creating your quests should be the last thing on your campaign prep checklist. The players dictate what they want to do and explore each session and you should not be forcing them to do something just because you have a quest for it.

Instead, drop hints and plot-hooks and hope that they pick up on them! Maybe they find a piece of treasure and know that it comes from a certain region in the continent. That way they’ll have a reason to explore that haunted mine shaft you pieced together.

Basically, prep a handful of quests, but don’t force your players into doing them. Have them on-hand and continue to generate things as the players dictate what they’d like to do each session. Be sure to schedule your sessions in such a way that you’ll have plenty of time to prep for them if you don’t have something premade.

Conclusions

There are going to definitely be some challenges for running a West Marches style of game. The biggest one is going to be fleshing out the rest of our world and building up enough quests to ensure that people will have stuff to do each session.

One adjustment that I’m already anticipating is shopping. I’ve had whole sessions spent on just interacting with the city and shopping.

This can be fun, but if you’ve planned to go on an adventure and anticipated such a session it’d suck to just be on a shopping trip. We’ll probably motion to have the brunt of it occur in-between sessions so we don’t waste time.

I’m excited and I can’t wait to both DM and play in this type of game. I’ll be sure to continue to talk about it and what I’ve learned from my experience.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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