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D&D General Setting up and running open-table sandboxes and West Marches campaigns

Yora

Legend
I am getting increasingly serious about starting a West Marches campaign. My experience with my Isle of Dread online campaign last year makes me feel that I could quite well end up with more than 10 players, and get the demand to have a second or third GM run at least occasional adventures in the same game world. While I don't have any experience with this, I know enough about such campaign to see that there are numerous things with which you could make things really more difficult for yourself. :sneaky:
The idea for this thread is to discuss how to avoid doing that.

To quickly pin down the basic parameters of this campaign style, the basic idea is that you have a pool of player, who each can have multiple characters of different level, who form regularly changing, temporary adventuring parties to set out into a wilderness for a limited scope exploration adventure.

There are various reasons to run such a campaign and play in it. One of the most attractive aspects is that it allows for frequent play without a fixed schedule. Even if you find a day every week or every two weeks that usually works for all players; when you have six people, one person being unavailable can become a very frequent thing. Open table games in general and West Marches campaigns specifically use adventure structures that don't require regular attendence and are not disrupted by players being absent. It does of course come with limitations for what kind of adventures are possible. The adventures have to exist independent from specific PCs, and getting involved in ongoing events in the game world becomes impractical. It more or less limits adventures to the exploring of ruins and caves, or the hunting of monsters or searching for treasures. This is one of the reasons why the West Marches concept generally excludes town adventures.
Adventures of this type are not what everyone is looking for in a campaign. But this is something that comes with the subject. It's not a universal solution to handling large player groups. It's one for campaigns of serial one-shots, with everything this brings with it.

While campaigns like this don't have to be limited to D&D and retroclones, I think most solutions that apply to any specific edition also translate very well to all the other, since the basic dice mechanics are basically the same, so I am putting this in this forum.

I already mentioned one method to help with making such a campaign work, which I simply asserted without elaborating on it. I think such a campaign should encourage players, at least those who play more regularly, to have multiple characters that they can switch between. When you have the party composition change in each adventure, you can end up with parties that have characters with overlapping specializations, while other skill sets are completely absent. Or you can have characters of widely different levels. By having players have two or more characters of different classes and levels, any group of players that has come together to play has much more options for putting together a good party.

Building on that, I also have a second recommendation: Systems with faster character creation and fewer abilities provide big advantages in a campaign like this. You could of course make a West Marches campaign in 3rd edition or Pathfinder, and I believe the original West Marches campaign actually did that. But there are two issues that become more pronounced with such rules systems. The first one is that the creation of a new character needs more time reserved for it. With a very simple edition like BECMI or OSE, you can easily say at the start of an adventure "give me a minute, I quickly make a new thief if none of us have one, and then we're ready to go". And while I understand I am making a completely subjective claim with this, I also think having more bare bones character sheets helps players not getting too attached to specific characters. I know, but hold your outrage! If the planning and expanding of a single character becomes more complex and work intensive, advancing that character becomes a more serious undertaking. I see this as a disincentive to switch between characters, as you have big plans for how you want to advance your main character. I see the West Marches campaign concept more as a game for players to play with the dungeons, than to play with their characters. Treating PCs as somewhat replaceable, and perhaps the campaign as a whole as more casual, should help with a smoother game in my opinion. It does after all not advertise deeply involved stories, but irregular (though not necessarily infrequent) on and off games for three to four hours at a time.

I thinking making the individual adventures in such a campaign pop, when they don't utilize the common modern lures of current adventure styles, is the main topic I want to dive into with this thread. But this has already been a lot of stuff to start chipping away with and I want this to become a discussion for us o learn from, rather than a manifesto of my armchair ponderings.
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I am getting increasingly serious about starting a West Marches campaign. My experience with my Isle of Dread online campaign last year makes me feel that I could quite well end up with more than 10 players, and get the demand to have a second or third GM run at least occasional adventures in the same game world.

Indeed, if you don't have multiple GMs, there's not a whole lot of need for the West Marches style.

Building on that, I also have a second recommendation: Systems with faster character creation and fewer abilities provide big advantages in a campaign like this.

I'm not sure that really matters so much - I think character creation for such a campaign ought to be out-of-band from the adventures anyway. The GMs need to agree on the ground rules of character creation (even if that is, "What the Lead Organizer says, goes"), and all characters should be reviewed and given a stamp of approval.

That probably means that new characters ought to be submitted at least a few days before they come into play, so they can be reviewed. Then, generation time doesn't matter.

I thinking making the individual adventures in such a campaign pop, when they don't utilize the common modern lures of current adventure styles, is the main topic I want to dive into with this thread.

How about we give folks some references on West Marches style games?


 

I've done a West Marches style, and technically I'm running one now (when the regular DMs can't run). If you want to run a full version with just you, here's my suggestions:

Do not have any randomness to character creation. Either use Point Buy or Array, and either force them to keep class & background equipment (which is faster) or give them the average starting gold. You don't want to have to watch people make characters, allowing them to do it all away from the table.

Set rules for treasure. Players shouldn't be able to loan/sell magic items or other treasure to any characters, especially their own. Otherwise you'll see every magic item each time.

If you have more players than you want to run in a given session, set up a web signup for the game. Set the number of player slots, and let people sign up. You can't sign up for a session beyond the next one you're in, forcing some level of rotation. You might want to set up an alternate spot, in case of last minute cancellations. Assuming the alternate doesn't get the play, they automatically take the #1 slot of the next game they want to sign up for. If someone cancels too often, you might want to remove them from the game.

The hardest part of running something like this is designing adventures that can be completed within the session length. My game works well because it's just a megadungeon. The players are only allowed to take 1 long rest (with potential random encounters), and they automatically retreat back to town when the session is over. I keep an eye on the time, so if I know a big fight is just around the corner, I'll end the session before that.
 


Yora

Legend
A PROPOSAL FOR TERMINOLOGY:

In my own notes I have started using the following terms with specific meanings, which I think might be useful to adapt for this discussion:

Party: A party is a temporary group of Player Characters. This is to have a distinction to the groups of players playing in a game.
Adventure: An Adventure starts when characters form a Party and sets out from a Safe Town. The Adventure ends when the Party has returned to a Safe Town and disbands. Typically when treasure is divided and XP are awarded.
Safe Town: A Safe Town is any kind of settlement that is considered secured enough and close to civilization to be suitable as the starting point and ending point of an Adventure. Not every settlement means that the PCs are out of danger. A Safe Town means that the PCs are in a place where they can spend the next weeks and months idle with no risks coming to them.
Site: An (Adventure) Site is the destination of an Adventure. It can be a dungeon, a ruin, a cave, a castle, a lair, a camp, or anything.
Indeed, if you don't have multiple GMs, there's not a whole lot of need for the West Marches style.
I did notice that myself. For a campaign that can be entirely run by just one GM, the preparation work for such a campaign seems really low, as you really can make up everything as you go. Outlining a general layout for the world is enough, and the basic ideas for towns and dungeons can be specified whenever players plan to get there.
Most of worldbuilding material I am currently writing is primarily to future proof the campaign for potential additional GMs. Though this isn't even a regular requirement. I just happen to want to run the campaign in a rather non-standard setting, in which players have the clues to piece together the general history of the area. I want those GMs to be able to have a good understanding of the world, and consistency in the presentation of towns that players might come through several times with different GMs, and I don't want to micromanage them through the entire process of preparing each adventure, by telling them which ideas they can use and what things need to be changed to fit the setting. By having a 10 page or so campaign setting documentation, everyone is much more free in creating their own material within the established boundaries.
In a campaign that is set in generic D&D land with no overall unifying concept, all GMs can just make up their own material from scratch without causing issues.
I'm not sure that really matters so much - I think character creation for such a campaign ought to be out-of-band from the adventures anyway. The GMs need to agree on the ground rules of character creation (even if that is, "What the Lead Organizer says, goes"), and all characters should be reviewed and given a stamp of approval.

That probably means that new characters ought to be submitted at least a few days before they come into play, so they can be reviewed. Then, generation time doesn't matter.
And here we're already getting into how the basic concept can be applied to a broad range of different campaign and gamemastering styles.
This idea here certainly is an option. An option that I absolutely would not want to use in my own campaign, but there's nothing about it that says it wouldn't work if you do.

Submitting characters in advance and having to go through an approval process takes the game in a direction that goes right against what I want to get with my own campaign. I think the ability for new players to just show up for a game without any prior knowledge or homework is a big selling point of the campaign. I will be running the campaign in Worlds Without Number, which is a system most people know practically nothing about, but might have heard the name being mentioned with high praise. To get such a campaign off the ground, I think the barrier of entry needs to be as low as possible. Show up, hang out for three or four hours, and if you don't like it there's nothing lost but those three or four hours. I find the proposal to check out a campaign in an unknown system with zero commitment very attractive. If you have an approval process in advance, you already have to get invested in the campaign several days before play even starts.

But I can see how this looks very different if you run the campaign in D&D 5th edition for example. In that case you'll have plenty of people who already know for sure that they want to play D&D 5th edition for a long time. In that context, it becomes much less of an entry barrier.
Do not have any randomness to character creation. Either use Point Buy or Array, and either force them to keep class & background equipment (which is faster) or give them the average starting gold. You don't want to have to watch people make characters, allowing them to do it all away from the table.
I still agree with this, though. Even within 5th edition, making things as simple as possible is certainly desirable. If it's just pick your attributes, pick your race, pick your class, pick your background, pick your gear pack, (pick your spells), then character creation can absolutely be done even in the 5 minutes before play starts.
Set rules for treasure. Players shouldn't be able to loan/sell magic items or other treasure to any characters, especially their own. Otherwise you'll see every magic item each time.
I had a discussion about this with several GMs a week or so ago, and we all were pretty much in agreement that this didn't seem to any of us as something to bother with.
Yes, you could have players handing over magic items to each other based on whoever happens to be going on an adventure right now. But why would that be a bad thing? There's always a real risk that you're not going to get it back, at least in a campaign where PCs have a real risk of dying. If the character with the item dies, it can end up in the hands of a different PC who has no intention to keep passing it around.
If you have a campaign that is strictly "every adventure has to be completed in a single sitting", then there is indeed the possibility of there being a big communal gear locker from which each party picks whatever they might expect to need for the adventure of the day. But see my other point further below.
If you have more players than you want to run in a given session, set up a web signup for the game. Set the number of player slots, and let people sign up. You can't sign up for a session beyond the next one you're in, forcing some level of rotation. You might want to set up an alternate spot, in case of last minute cancellations. Assuming the alternate doesn't get the play, they automatically take the #1 slot of the next game they want to sign up for. If someone cancels too often, you might want to remove them from the game.
I was thinking of that. Does anyone know of good tools for managing this? Ideally, it should be something where all players can see the whole schedule at any time, and not just the GMs with admin access.
The hardest part of running something like this is designing adventures that can be completed within the session length. My game works well because it's just a megadungeon. The players are only allowed to take 1 long rest (with potential random encounters), and they automatically retreat back to town when the session is over. I keep an eye on the time, so if I know a big fight is just around the corner, I'll end the session before that.
I am thinking a bit bigger than this for my own campaign. Going with the old Gygax meme of "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT." (all caps), you can have parties be out on adventures for several weeks, spread out over several games. This is where players having multiple characters becomes relevant. When a party sets out on an adventure, that group of characters is tied up and unavailable for anything else until that adventure is completed. That adventure can only progress when all the players and the GM manage to set a date to continue it. Which might be only once every two weeks or every month. If some of the players playing in that adventure have the time and desire to play more often, they can do so by making a new character. In that case, not only are the characters committed to and tied up in the ongoing adventure, but all their magic items are as well. That way you automatically end up with each adventuring party having different sets of magic items available to them. Giving out mostly items with limited uses can also add to more variety if that's desired.

I currently have the following rules written down in my notes for scheduling these things so you don't end up with time paradoxes.
  • When a party sets out on an adventure, the starting date has to be on a day that is after all the characters in the party have completed their previous adventure. And in systems with slower recovery mechanics like WWN, probably also after they all had time to return to full strength.
  • If a party sets out to a site that has already be visited by another group of PCs, the new adventure can only start on a date that ensures they will reach the site on a date after the previous group has left it.
  • Ideally, all adventures to a site that has previously been visited by players, should be run by the same GM, if the campaign has multiple GMs.

Keeping the strict time records should be pretty easy with a simple spreadsheet. And I am quite certain that there are ways to have a single file that is accessible and can be edited by multiple users. All you need is a column showing the date for each day in the campaign, and a column for every PC in the campaign. At the end of each game, the GM of the group marks the days on which the game took place in the columns of all the PCs participating in the adventure, and maybe types in relevant information like the character's current XP and health condition (if you want to bother with characters taking time off for recovery).
Then you have a second sheet with a column for each site, and mark on which days a party was at that site.
 

I had a discussion about this with several GMs a week or so ago, and we all were pretty much in agreement that this didn't seem to any of us as something to bother with.
Yes, you could have players handing over magic items to each other based on whoever happens to be going on an adventure right now. But why would that be a bad thing? There's always a real risk that you're not going to get it back, at least in a campaign where PCs have a real risk of dying. If the character with the item dies, it can end up in the hands of a different PC who has no intention to keep passing it around.
If you have a campaign that is strictly "every adventure has to be completed in a single sitting", then there is indeed the possibility of there being a big communal gear locker from which each party picks whatever they might expect to need for the adventure of the day. But see my other point further below.
I suppose it depends on the concept behind the game. If the PCs are all allies in a single organization, this makes a level of sense. The only non-magic situation where this matters is armor, because the characters could pool their resources to buy 1 suit of plate armor, then just pass it around until a second suit is availible. Realize that doing this will magic items cumulative, making every non-consumable magic item you give out more powerful. That wand of lightning bolts will be used every single adventure, so be prepared.
I was thinking of that. Does anyone know of good tools for managing this? Ideally, it should be something where all players can see the whole schedule at any time, and not just the GMs with admin access.
I'm fairly illiterate technologically speaking, so I can't help you here.
I am thinking a bit bigger than this for my own campaign. Going with the old Gygax meme of "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT." (all caps), you can have parties be out on adventures for several weeks, spread out over several games. This is where players having multiple characters becomes relevant. When a party sets out on an adventure, that group of characters is tied up and unavailable for anything else until that adventure is completed. That adventure can only progress when all the players and the GM manage to set a date to continue it.
This is a break from the West Marches style, as I understand it. The original setup was to end each session with the party safely back in town, keeping each adventure confined to a single session. The big downside of your setup is the probability of certain characters never being seen again. To restore that group, you have to have exactly the same players as before, and if someone misses that session you either have to bail or deal with a missing player (both of which are problematic).
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Earlier this year we started an online West Marches style game, with players vouched for by others in the group. We had three DMs and 12+ players, each allowed a stable of up to three characters (starting 3rd level).

It died by scheduling.

The players were completely foreign to the idea of "get a group together and let a DM know" and on the flip side the DMs posted some availability but asked gamers weren't coming together. Or worse one DM needed 24 hour notice (self employed) and a party would come together like 45 minutes before start time and try to get him.

In the end I think we half less than half a dozen sessions and then it just faded out with barely a whimper.
 

Yora

Legend
That could have all numbers of reason. But I would strongly suspect unclear expectations of how the campaign was going to work by most people involved.
This is a break from the West Marches style, as I understand it. The original setup was to end each session with the party safely back in town, keeping each adventure confined to a single session. The big downside of your setup is the probability of certain characters never being seen again. To restore that group, you have to have exactly the same players as before, and if someone misses that session you either have to bail or deal with a missing player (both of which are problematic).
You only need to get those players back together three or four times. That's something that every regular group manages to do. And with proper timekeeping and multiple characters, it's not like everyone has to wait until then. Other adventures can be played in the meantime while those PCs are occupied. If a player drops out of the campaign while having a character in an active adventure, that character simply "got lost in the wilderness" and the party continues on without him.
Though it would be a very good practice to establish the estimated number of games it will take for an adventure before it starts. Players who just want to peek in once or twice at a highly irregular basis should only go on adventures that can be wrapped up in one go. Though when all characters start at 1st level, then that's as simple as making sure that all sites that are suitable for 1st level PCs are close to a town and small in scale. Larger dungeons with more powerful creatures are further away, and when you have a party of 5th to 7th level characters, you know that these are players who are in it for the long haul.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
This is a break from the West Marches style, as I understand it. The original setup was to end each session with the party safely back in town, keeping each adventure confined to a single session. The big downside of your setup is the probability of certain characters never being seen again. To restore that group, you have to have exactly the same players as before, and if someone misses that session you either have to bail or deal with a missing player (both of which are problematic).
Not the OP, but these aren't contradictory if your'e playing with a stable of characters. Time is tracked so that even if the characters play for a single session they may be gone from May 1st to June 12th and are unavailable for other adventures during that time. Brandes Stoddard has some examples on his personal blog (not his Tribality D&D articles) to see this in action. Each player has a stable of characters, at different levels and in different positions in his adventuring mercenary company, so it promotes different groups and team-ups.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Do not have any randomness to character creation. Either use Point Buy or Array, and either force them to keep class & background equipment (which is faster) or give them the average starting gold. You don't want to have to watch people make characters, allowing them to do it all away from the table.
Absolutely.

Set rules for treasure. Players shouldn't be able to loan/sell magic items or other treasure to any characters, especially their own. Otherwise you'll see every magic item each time.
Caveat - allow trading among the party that is out. If one character wants to give a potion of healing, or loan his cloak of elvening to the paladin while attempting a group sneak, or permenantly trade the +1 short sword to the rogue for his boots of water walking, go for it. It doens't change the items on the adventure in that case. Also not allowing any trading within the active party nerfs the artificer who is good at filling in gaps of what the party has.
 

Yora

Legend
A big question to me is what the real meat of a West Marches campaign is supposed to be. The thing that players come to play for.

In games with complex combat system, this can be the fun of playing tactical skirmish encounters.
In games with central stories, it can be to see the characters improve and become accomplished.
In a dungeon crawler, it can be fun working on puzzles and other challenges.

For a West Marches campaign, I find the first two less suitable. Complex combat tends to lead to long fights, which means slow progress. This means that either adventures get quite long, or there is little that gets done if the adventure is kept short.

With constantly changing characters, and possibly quite large pools of characters, there is little room to express the personality of individual characters. And with adventures of limited length, also not much time to indulge in such things. I am not sure where this idea is coming from, but I also feel that such a campaign also should have real dangers of PCs getting killed. (It does not seem to be an automatic requirement based on the overall premise.) Players should assume that there is a considerable likelihood for any character to die, and be open to introduce new characters when scheduling issues make it a convenient solution. This generally doesn't work well with players getting deeply invested in their darling characters.

And I personally just never understood how puzzles can be made to be both fun and appear plausible within a believable game world. I know many people love them, but I simply don't get the appeal.

I think a kind of enjoyment that a West Marches game is very well suited to provide for players who don't make the campaign about their characters, is for the adventures to reveal a world. The structure that allows players to set their own paths and pace of exploration is uniquely suited to creating a sense of discovery. Because players know that they are not walking through a curated experience like a movie or most videogames, and that there are many things that will remain hidden from them unless they take actions to reveal them. And they will have to overcome obstacles to reveal them.
Because of this, I believe that a West Marches campaign will benefit greatly from solid and thought out worldbuilding. In a dungeon crawl focused campaign, where the obstacles are the meat of the game, you can get away with generic Fantasyland as the nondescriptive overworld where the entrances to on the fly created dungeons are located. But for a more exploration focused campaign, I think exploring rooms is much less interesting than gathering pieces to assemble a greater picture. However, the challenge in this respect is that the players would need to have a constant sense of accomplishment. A player who plays only three times over four months should still walk away with a feeling of having discovered something interesting. As do the players who play every week for three years. Perhaps one approach to this is set things up so that every site has a story that can be partly pieces together just from clues in the environment, but also interactions with the current residents. But in addition to that, each site also helps providing context for a big picture to create a long-term progression for the regular players.

In addition to sites, I believe a lot can be done in regards to worldbuilding with encounters on the way to and from the sites. I am even having a hunch that a campaign could be possible in which random wilderness encounter can be main form of content for the game. But these would need to be more than just attacks by wolves, goblins, and bandits. There would have to be a well established ecosystem of bandit gangs and goblin tribes, who are having their respective territories and ongoing conflicts, and occasionally try to use interactions with players to use them to their advantage against their rivals. To that you can add various cults, and possibly guilds, and certain wizards and druids. Gathering information, through interactions, about these factional ecosystems can also be a great source of discovery. Especially when it is connected to the histories of the sites.
 

Indeed, if you don't have multiple GMs, there's not a whole lot of need for the West Marches style.
Well, as you know, the original concept was invented for a single GM with a good amount of free time and a flexible schedule, but too many players interested for him to run all at once. Similar to what Gary and Dave and Rob were dealing with at the beginning with OD&D.

The biggest challenge with the original concept always seems to be having a) that much free time and flexibility on the GM's part, and b) sufficiently-motivated players to self-organize and schedule their own sessions with consistency.

I'm in a Discord-based West Marches campaign right now with a handful of DMs, and some of the DMs and players are indeed flexible, but while there ARE some pick-up sessions, most of the play does seem to center around certain scheduled time slots where a given DM usually runs every week for whoever happens to be available.

The practical reality of life is that most of us adults have busy lives, and it's easier for us to play on one or two or three scheduled time slots each week. Most of us aren't college students with a whole lot of free evenings, or besotted new players absolutely entranced with the game and jonesing to play as much as possible like many of the first wave of 70s players.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Well, as you know, the original concept was invented for a single GM with a good amount of free time and a flexible schedule, but too many players interested for him to run all at once. Similar to what Gary and Dave and Rob were dealing with at the beginning with OD&D.

What it was originally intended for, and what it is really good for in the broader sphere, are often two different things.

The biggest challenge with the original concept always seems to be having a) that much free time and flexibility on the GM's part, and b) sufficiently-motivated players to self-organize and schedule their own sessions with consistency.

Yeah. While it was in the original experiment, and it might work for a few, broadly I would not expect player-initiated scheduling to work. Every time a player goes, "I'd like to play Tuesday," and no GM answers, that ends up as a disappointment. Repeated disappointments train players to not bother asking, and the thing falls apart.

GM-initiated scheduling, "I'm available to run Tuesday, who is in and what do you want to do?" is probably more practical. And maybe that GM runs every Tuesday, that initial message from the GM is still a good way to kick off the discussion about what the players will want to do.

Most of us aren't college students with a whole lot of free evenings, or besotted new players absolutely entranced with the game and jonesing to play as much as possible like many of the first wave of 70s players.

Yep. No argument.
 

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