OSR Managing player attachment and engagement in dungeon crawls

Yora

Legend
I am in the preparatory work for a West Marches campaign, which I intend to run in a way that characters at higher levels go on longer adventures to more distant places that can't be completed in a single day. With the way that scheduling works in a West Marches game, this will mean that characters going on such longer adventures will be tied and not available for other adventures if players want to play more before the whole player group for that adventure can get back together again to continue. I believe a setup like this is what the Gygax meme of "you can not have a meaningful campaign if accurate time records aren't being kept" is talking about.
As I see it, such an approach to a campaign pretty much requires that more regularly playing players have several characters with which they go on different ongoing adventures at the same time. Not for new players who make their first characters and go on short adventures that are wrapped up on the same day, but for higher level characters going on long adventures, getting the same group together might only work twice or once per month, and the whole idea is that you can play any time you can get a GM to run the game.

Playing in campaigns where players can have two or three characters who are doing their separate things is pretty unusual these days. And you don't see there being a real risk of characters getting permanently killed at any moment either, outside of dedicated oldschool dungeon crawling holdout groups. I believe playing in a campaign in which your characters are treated as basically interchangeable is a pretty foreign idea to a great majority of players. After all, many game systems make the games all about the player characters and their advance in strength or social influence. I don't see this being a workable reward or incentive for players in a West Marches dungeon crawl campaign, and for such a campaign to work out with players who aren't already deep into this style of playing, I believe it's very important to both give them the right expectations of what they'll be able to get out of the campaign, and to provide something else that creates a sense of accomplishment and progress.

Getting treasure to make more XP, so you can become stronger to get more treasure faster does not seem like a sufficiently engaging feedback loop when you're playing with a system that doesn't hand the characters many new toys when they level up. If you're a wizard who gets new spells at every level then maybe, but not for a fighter who only gets passive increases to hit points and saving throws, but not any new abilities.
Similarly, I don't see the logical challenge inherent in tactical skirmish encounters as being that compelling in the long run when the combat system is fairly bare bones.

Addressing this both to people who have gotten a lot of fun out of games that were only dungeon crawls for many years, but also to people who are intrigued by the idea without having tried it yet: What kind of things do you think maintain the engagement with the campaign, even when the attachment to the PCs remains somewhat low and is not the main drawing point for the game?

The horse I am betting on with the campaign I am planning is that players can be kept engaged by a sense of discovery and uncovering the mysteries of the civilizations that build the ruined places the players are exploring. This is one of the big draws of the Dark Souls game besides the combat, and I think really the main draw of the Elder Scrolls series. But those reference points set the bar very high, and it's unreasonable to expect producing something like that on the first try. But GMs have build thousands of their own dungeon crawl locations for decades, and surely there must have been a lot discovered in what works to make engaging locations for players to explore.
 

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