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D&D General Worldbuilding considerations for a West Marches sandbox

Yora

Legend
For the sake of this discussion, a West Marches campaign is one that has more players that play at any given time, who go on many site based adventures in constantly changing parties, based on who's playing on a given day.
There are lots of different ways to approach this, like enforcing that each adventure is a one-shot and each game must end back at the starting town so every character is back in the stable next time the GM runs an adventure, or players having multiple characters so that several ongoing adventures can be active at the same time without the players having to wait for all the players in the party to find a time to continue before they can play again. You can make it a strict rule that all adventures have to be in dungeons outside of the starting town, or you can havr a campaign were some adventures deal with the locals of the town. Amd you can set up all kinds of systems do handle scheduling.
What matters in the end is that you have a larger number of players whose characters don't have fixed parties, and who tell the GM which places in the environment they want to go visit next time, instead of the GM telling them what adventure they'll be having today.

Running such a campaign comes with its own limitation of what works well as setups for adventures, but also opportunities you don't have in the same way in other campaigns. And I believe that it worls much better in an environment that is set up with these dynamics in mind. And of the world that the GM describes feels like it makes sense for the PCs to go on adventures in the way they do. I see this primarily as an issue of how you arange your pieces in the sandbox environment, but I think being selctive about what pieces you want to put into it in the first place could also help with making the campaign feel more engaging and believable.

Something that I thinkmis kind of an unstated default assumption with these campaigns is that they are taking place in a lawless borderland and that the main activities of PCs is checking out nearby caves and ruins.
Setting the campaign in an area with a small population, little existing infrastructure, and barely any official authority creates a good environment in which adventurers have free rein to roam around like a small army and can stumble on numerous places that have not been cleared of any potential valuables centuries ago.
Having just one major town, which might be fairly new, can be a great compromise between having the wilderness right out the door, and having access to a great number of services. And it also doubles as the point where the many PCs keep coming together to form parties for their next adventure.
When you have only one real town where all PCs always return to, I think it could be a really good investment of setup work to give that town some detail. That's one of the things I'm really interested about with this topic.

If the campaign is strict about each adventure being only a one-shot and not being left in the air to be continued at another time, then all the places players can go to would need to be pretty close together. Say you have 3 to 4 hours to play a whole adventure, then you don't want to spend more than 30 minutes getting to the dungeon and back each.
But that range can be extended to open up new areas for adventures by having other settlements that can serve as forward base camps, like keeps or highway inns, that are connected to the starting town by a road that allows PCs to directly move between them without spending any play time on it. The characters are assumed to have formed a group in the starting town and having travelled to the base camp without incident, where the adventure begins, and then later the adventure also ends there, with the journey home to the starting town also assumed to have been uneventful.

An important thing about the dungeons is that an adventure that needs to e wrapped up in one go doesn't need to explore the entire dungeon.You can also have larger dungeons that will easily take 3, 6, or 10 adventures to explore fully. But I think such dungeons in particular should be close to the starting town or one of the base camps. Even when you handle the journeys to and from the dungeon in a way that you can do three or four days of travel in 30 minutes. It would feel a bit strange that PCs would travel for a whole week two spend two or three hours exploring and then returning to civilization to do the whole thing again. If they can set out from a place where they can rest and recover in the morning snd get back before nightfall, then constantly going back and forth makes for a much more believable story.

One thing from the original West Marches campaign, that I think might actually have been the player's idea, which seems really useful is to have some kind of master map for the campaign that is accessible to all PCs (and respectively players), to see what has been discovered about the environment so far. This should be an object that exists as an object somewhere in the game world, probably the starting town. This can be the original approach of a big tavern table in which adventurers scratched doodles to plan their next adventures. For my campaign, I am planning on having a small cartographer's society that has a big public map of the border area where travellers can submit their own notes which are added by the custodian scribe after having compared notes from different people. There's probably other cool ways this can be done.
 

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Something that you should consider for such a campaign is to ignore travel that isn't part of the adventure. If the party is going to investigate some bandits, they won't face anything until they get into the bandit's territory. This keeps them from wasting session time with unnecessary distractions.

Designing the town can be crucial, depending on how much of an element you want it to be. If you plan any adventures in it, or want to use it for gathering information before they head out, then the more you put into it, the better off you are. I often use Gary Gygax's World Builder for town details, and Gary Gygax's Living Fantasy for cultural aspects (his Extraordinary Book of Names is also valuable to give consistent names to NPCs).

Practically, you don't want to just let the players pick the adventure at the start of the session, as this requires you to have every adventure prepped out in advance. I know it's cool, but you'd spend weeks in prep before you'd ever have the first session. A better approach is to drop clues about the different adventure options during play, then during the signup method put the introduction of the adventure. Depending on your group, this allows players to pick the adventures they're most interested in (and avoid ones that don't). This allows you time to prep between each session.
 

WinkyDinkus

Villager
I recently started a West Marches game and I intentionally added starting rumors to the board that were so far out it wouldn't be feasible to go to them anytime soon. The goal of their west marches is to reestablish a foothold for an empire, so they are trying to amass wealth to build holdings in the wild after pacifying it. This basically makes it so when they settle down and make fresh level 1 characters, they'll have a launchpad to go further and further out, while their old characters get to do really high level activity and domain play(not sure this would work for every table, my players liked it when we did it awhile back though so I figured I could bring it back.)

It's also possible to help travel by using things like portals at the end of dungeons or hidden away in ruins to facilitate travel long distances, so players only have to travel a couple days to reach the portals and be sent further up to speed travel long distance. I'm sure there is other ways to facilitate long travel in short spans of time but thats just what I could come up with while planning our game.

The biggest problem we've had running it now for around 5 sessions is keeping an appearance of a formerly lived in world alive to the players with every location. It becomes hard to believe after the 3rd or so guard tower looted that any group of people would need this much defense in the middle of nowhere, so keeping locations interesting and also believable has been pretty hard. Recently, I started inserting some unique one page dungeons into hexs where i wanted something, and since the creation process was already done, it let me take the time to consider why it was even there in the first place more seriously. It goes a long way when the players reach an old mansion and can immediately recognize the name as belonging to the bandit king's old long disgraced family or something along those lines.
 

DeviousQuail

Adventurer
A different system than D&D but I played in a west marches-esque game a long time ago that had a very Stargate feel to it. We were exploring the bones of an old empire and the number one priority at all times was to find the teleportation gates and getting the "address" to allow travel deeper into the continent. Overland travel was an absolute pain due to the vastness of the land, unforgiving environment, and plethora of magical dead zones.

Each adventure (1 to 2 sessions) would start with us teleporting to a region with some kind of mission. The DM, an absolute madman and inspiration, would sprinkle each mission with hidden lore and objects that tied into other missions/regions in really fun ways. They were usually bits of maps, logs and journals dropping hints about research and experiments, or "keys" that would open up new adventures. Everything was compiled upon our return for use in future sessions. I remember the map was less to scale and more of a general guideline as to what each region had going on.

My takeaways for world building:
  • Having a method of quickly returning home is nice, but make sure that method has a real cost. Each teleportation required us to power up the gates and those power stones required a lot of money. While it doesn't have to be money, it sure does help incentivize bringing back things of value. For 5e I'd suggest an increased cost to the teleportation circle spell based on distance.
  • Maps are cool, make one. Just don't try to fill it all in ahead of time. You never know what you or your players might want to add down the road. A few points of interest spread out with a bunch of empty space to be filled in later works.
  • The home town/base/ship/etc should feel alive and grow in a way to reflect the players adventures. Not much more than a passing fancy or your players might never leave!
  • As a DM you should know exactly why this area is so devoid of civilization. The players can have an idea but not the nitty-gritty details. It gives a bit of mystery that you can choose to unfold in bits and pieces over time. False flags and multiple versions of events can muddy the waters a bit and make for interesting notes for other groups.
  • The DM had a list of potential missions for us that grew over time. Every time we finished one we'd have at least two new ones. I don't know what his system was but after a while he'd declare certain missions were completed by NPCs and were no longer available in order to thin things out. Looking back, I'm 99% sure he just recycled them while giving the impression of change.
 

Yora

Legend
Something that you should consider for such a campaign is to ignore travel that isn't part of the adventure. If the party is going to investigate some bandits, they won't face anything until they get into the bandit's territory. This keeps them from wasting session time with unnecessary distractions.
In a sandbox campaign, discovering new things along the way is a major aspect of the core concept. Especially when it is focused on exploring an unknown wilderness, which I think is essential for West Marches campaigns. Finding hints for new places to check out, and always having multiple choices of where you can go next is what the game is all about.
I recently started a West Marches game and I intentionally added starting rumors to the board that were so far out it wouldn't be feasible to go to them anytime soon.
That' a good element to mention. In a campaign where PCs are meant to return back to a main base often and relatively quickly, having pointers to where they could go to find something interesting might be a better approach than sweeping trough lot of hexes and hoping to find something.
Those rumors can be both generated by the GM, but also be things that other players noticed on their adventures but didn't get to check out before they returned home. Either because they were currently focused on something else, or because it didn't seem like something they were not interested in themselves. I think it could really help if there is some kind of institution within the game world through which adventurers exchange such information. That could be some specific place where information is collected, but also a kind of custom that exits among adventurers.
For my campaign, I am setting up a system where players can increase the reputation scores of their characters by writing some kind of report of what they've seen and done on their last adventure, which get collected and are part of the game world as tavern chatter that they have spread. Players can agree to not share what they did on an adventure and keep their discovery secret and simply not get any reputation for it. But they could also agree to not mention certain details which will be left out of any reports they write, so they can go back to check things out further later.
The biggest problem we've had running it now for around 5 sessions is keeping an appearance of a formerly lived in world alive to the players with every location. It becomes hard to believe after the 3rd or so guard tower looted that any group of people would need this much defense in the middle of nowhere, so keeping locations interesting and also believable has been pretty hard. Recently, I started inserting some unique one page dungeons into hexs where i wanted something, and since the creation process was already done, it let me take the time to consider why it was even there in the first place more seriously. It goes a long way when the players reach an old mansion and can immediately recognize the name as belonging to the bandit king's old long disgraced family or something along those lines.
A fun idea is to think about what civilizations existed in the sandbox area in the past. For my campaign I have six, though that's probably overkill. Three should totally be enough. The idea is to consider during the creation of the environment who had inhabited the area before and at what times, and what typical traits are common to the ruins they left behind. In my setting, the last civilization disappeared from the area a thousand years ago, but in the centuries since then, various barbarian tribes have come through the area. Barbarian sites are either in caves or the uppermost sections of older ruins. They have relatively little treasure in them and almost none of it is coins. If they left any traps behind, they are made of wood and ropes and often already nonfunctional when PCs get to them. And there might be plenty of warning markers to not continue into cursed areas at the very edges of where constructions by the barbarians end.
The idea is that when player have been to several barbarian or naga ruins before, they are able to recognize one when they discover it, and have some knowledge about what challenges they could expect ahead, and what contingencies they don't need to worry about. Floor traps might be a serious danger in naga ruins, but nobody has ever seen one in a giant ruin, for example.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
I'm thinking of adding a hex crawl to one phase of my next campaign (tm).

In this world, Doors (capital D) lead to Dungeons. They are left over pocket-planes built during the last apocalyptic war for various purposes, from Fallout Vault-like survival, to storage vaults, military supply depots, labs of wizards (aka demiplane), to long-term storage of magical "toxic waste". You access them via Doors, and current the economic phase-change in the world is fed by the fact that one empire has found and opened a Door to some ancient magi-tech (not that they are talking about this fact). (Think Indiana Jones, but where the Nazis managed to get ahold of one of those magic artifacts, and it wasn't useless to them)

So exploring the wilderness to find Doors, and being able to use Corridors (Dungeons with two or more Doors) as short cuts, should fit. There is going to be a scramble to find and search for Doors & search Dungeons for more of that juicy, juicy previous-era magic.

I'm not sure if I can fit a real hex crawl in. I have plans for T1 that didn't include a hex crawl. It would have to fit it somewhere in T2 I suspect; by T3, a full on magic-tech revolution and a global magitec war should be kicking off, and airships/teleportation/plane shifting starts showing up. A hex crawl won't work as well.

I suppose I could rotate my T1 plans to be a hex crawl. And T1 might be the best levels for it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Re the idea of rumours and other adventure hooks:

In a game like this you could go a step further and literally have a notice board at the local mercenaries' guild, on which anyone who needs adventurers or knows of an adventure that needs doing posts it; and any adventurers looking for work can either take action on one or post their own "seeking employment" notices. (this also makes recruiting new PCs hella easy!)

Worldbuilding concerns:

If there's to be lots of characters that probably means your players will explore the variety of playable races, species and cultures available in your setting; meaning you need to have a homeland or point of origin for each one noted somewhere on the map, or note that a given species or culture tends to co-exist with (an)other(s).

Unless your home base town is impervious to attack, you'll need to find some way of keeping the adventure sites well away from it. One possibility here is a permanent gate or teleporter that takes the user outbound from town to the wild lands but (to prevent invasion) will only bring someone back inbound if that person has previously used it for outbound travel. (yes this presents issues if-when the party meets or rescues someone in the field, but so be it)

Either that, or you'll have to somehow rationalize why all those monsters in the adventures haven't overrun the town ages ago. :)
 

Yora

Legend
The monsters just might not have any interest in the town.

I'm somewhat surprised how many people are jumping on teleportation networks here. Though that is of course an option with this campaign structure.
 

DeviousQuail

Adventurer
You certainly don't need a teleportation network but it is one solution to the issue of venturing further and further out from home. Obviously, this is only an issue if you worry about the timeframes of travel. If you don't mind applying some handwavium you can turn a day, a week, or a month into a minute.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You certainly don't need a teleportation network but it is one solution to the issue of venturing further and further out from home. Obviously, this is only an issue if you worry about the timeframes of travel. If you don't mind applying some handwavium you can turn a day, a week, or a month into a minute.
Except if the party's travelling for a month just to get to the adventure (and thus, perforce, another month to get back) either they're going to have to take pack-mule-loads of rations with them or there'll need to be villages and waypoints along the way where they can stock up.
 

DeviousQuail

Adventurer
Except if the party's travelling for a month just to get to the adventure (and thus, perforce, another month to get back) either they're going to have to take pack-mule-loads of rations with them or there'll need to be villages and waypoints along the way where they can stock up.
Right. Different groups are going to want to handle that in their own ways. So it's probably a good idea to chat with your group about their expectations regarding travel and how in depth everyone wants that part of the game to be. Designing or redesigning certain aspects of the world based on what people actually want to play.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Right. Different groups are going to want to handle that in their own ways. So it's probably a good idea to chat with your group about their expectations regarding travel and how in depth everyone wants that part of the game to be. Designing or redesigning certain aspects of the world based on what people actually want to play.
Two things here.

First, it seems the OP intends there to be a lot of players in this game, along with a fair amount of player turnover, making any sort of consensus that much harder to achieve. If, as it seems might be the case, this DM has a large pool of potential players to draw from, saying "here it is and here's how it works, who wants to play?" is probably simplest; meaning decisions like this are the DM's to make.

Second, there's the question of which comes first: designing the world or selecting/inviting people to play in it. This can be an issue if, like me, you spend a year or more on setting design before dropping the puck. Most players IME aren't patient enough to wait that long, meaning inviting them in before designing the setting doesn't mean they'll still be around when it's done.
 

DeviousQuail

Adventurer
Two things here.

First, it seems the OP intends there to be a lot of players in this game, along with a fair amount of player turnover, making any sort of consensus that much harder to achieve. If, as it seems might be the case, this DM has a large pool of potential players to draw from, saying "here it is and here's how it works, who wants to play?" is probably simplest; meaning decisions like this are the DM's to make.

Second, there's the question of which comes first: designing the world or selecting/inviting people to play in it. This can be an issue if, like me, you spend a year or more on setting design before dropping the puck. Most players IME aren't patient enough to wait that long, meaning inviting them in before designing the setting doesn't mean they'll still be around when it's done.
I wasn't suggesting that nothing be designed before talking to the players, just that you can change aspects of the game to suit the players. There's also the option to leave an aspect of the game un-designed/under-designed and get input before beginning. Even if you're not able to get every potential player's input it's not a terrible idea to get some player input. Worst case scenario the DM just defaults to what they've already got in place.

As to traveling, you can choose any method you want for your world. Then decide how much table time is given to that part of the game while at the table. That was what I meant to come across when I said a DM could use handwavium regarding the time of the journey.
 

Yora

Legend
Here is the thoughts of the creator on the setting design of the original West Marches:

The game was set in a frontier region on the edge of civilization (the eponymous West Marches). There’s a convenient fortified town that marked the farthest outpost of civilization and law, but beyond that is sketchy wilderness. All the PCs are would-be adventurers based in this town. Adventuring is not a common or safe profession, so the player characters are the only ones interested in risking their lives in the wilderness in hopes of making a fortune (NPCs adventurers are few and far between). Between sorties into the wilds PCs rest up, trade info and plan their next foray in the cheery taproom of the Axe & Thistle.

The whole territory is (by necessity) very detailed. The landscape is broken up into a variety of regions (Frog Marshes, Cradle Wood, Pike Hollow, etc.) each with its own particular tone, ecology and hazards. There are dungeons, ruins, and caves all over the place, some big and many small. Some are known landmarks (everbody knows where the Sunken Fort is), some are rumored but their exact location is unknown (the Hall of Kings is said to be somewhere in Cradle Wood) and others are completely unknown and only discovered by exploring (search the spider-infested woods and you find the Spider Mound nest).

PCs get to explore anywhere they want, the only rule being that going back east is off-limits — there are no adventures in the civilized lands, just peaceful retirement.

The environment is dangerous. Very dangerous. That’s intentional, because as the great MUD Nexus teaches us, danger unites. PCs have to work together or they are going to get creamed. They also have to think and pick their battles — since they can go anywhere, there is nothing stopping them from strolling into areas that will wipe them out. If they just strap on their swords and charge everything they see they are going to be rolling up new characters. Players learn to observe their environment and adapt — when they find owlbear tracks in the woods they give the area a wide berth (at least until they gain a few levels). When they stumble into the lair of a terrifying hydra they retreat and round up a huge posse to hunt it down.

The PCs are weak but central: they are small fish in a dangerous world that they have to explore with caution, but because they are the only adventurers they never play second fiddle. Overshadowed by looming peaks and foreboding forests yes. Overshadowed by other characters, no.

Source

Being someone who tried something out to see how it works, he's not the final authority on the subject. But this was written in hindsight after running the campaign, which elevates it above regular speculation.

Other sections of the exploration make it very clear that there was a quite large wilderness parties had to pass through to reach dungeons, and that each region had its own wandering monster tables. Unfortunately, he doesn't really say anything on how wilderness travel was done.

Interestingly, contrary to common belief, he never actually does say that the party has to go back to the town every time they stop playing and that adventures can't be played over multiple different days. (Where does that assumption come from?) But very fortunately, someone asked about this in the comments just two months ago (where I could immediately find it), and the response was that this was something left entirely up to the players:

You lay out the consequences at the start (e.g. “if you’re in a game and don’t get back you can’t join another game”) which motivates the players to manage themselves. If they want to be free to join other groups, it’s their job to think about when to turn back during a play session.

As it relates to making the sandbox, this approach means you need to have both sites that are easily and quickly accessible, and sites that are further away in the wilderness. So players have the option to chose if they want to commit their characters to an adventure that will require the same group of players to get together several times, or if they want to keep the flexibility of having that character drop into a new short adventure any time they feel like. (Which should be established by the "expedition leader" when recruiting the party.)

My assumption is that players who want to have the maximum flexibility are probably also among those who play the least frequently, so having the dungeons close to the town be mostly low-level stuff shouldn't be too much of a problem. Having a kind of automatically refilling megadungeon easily reachable from the town could help with that. And of course, all of this becomes much less an issue when players can have multiple characters. Which was a fairly typical thing in the early D&D days, and I believe precisely because of this very issue. And this is where the "You can not have a meaningful campaign if strict time records are not being kept" meme comes from. The time records in question are probably notes on which characters left on adventures on which calendar days, and on what days they returned to be available for new adventures. Even if you don't track season, it can be important to know which dungeon was visited at what times by what parties, so one party can't "overtake" another party and reach certain treasures first by simply playing more often.

An interesting addition to all of this is the option for players to open up or establish new base camps deeper in the wilderness that can be used as alternative start and end points for adventures. That way characters of players who want short adventures can move their home base to more dangerous areas as they reach higher levels. That seems like the most practical approach to me. But of course, those forward base camps can also be portals connecting to the starting town, if that fits the style of the setting.
 

Yora

Legend
What are your thoughts on NPC factions?

The structure of irregular and frequently changing parties and players exploring all over the place as different groups end up together makes ongoing story arcs between adventures rather impractical. But at the same time, bandits not simply being "bandits", but part of a complex web various groups with distinctive territories and patterns of behavior can be as interesting to get familiar with as new unknown monsters. For all intents and purposes, having a goblin tribe in one area an a bugbear tribe in another area is the same thing as having different groups of bandits for example.

You can always create unlimited amounts of backstory that might never come up during play, but what would you consider an "efficient" degree of work to put into such groups? What are the pros and cons for different sizes of groups or the scopes of their territories?

Any thoughts on this subject?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
What are your thoughts on NPC factions?

The structure of irregular and frequently changing parties and players exploring all over the place as different groups end up together makes ongoing story arcs between adventures rather impractical. But at the same time, bandits not simply being "bandits", but part of a complex web various groups with distinctive territories and patterns of behavior can be as interesting to get familiar with as new unknown monsters. For all intents and purposes, having a goblin tribe in one area an a bugbear tribe in another area is the same thing as having different groups of bandits for example.

You can always create unlimited amounts of backstory that might never come up during play, but what would you consider an "efficient" degree of work to put into such groups? What are the pros and cons for different sizes of groups or the scopes of their territories?

Any thoughts on this subject?
For the type of campaign you have in mind, honestly I probably wouldn't bother with these. The game you're proposing seems very oriented toward episode-of-the-week play, with little if any ongoing story continuity except in the broadest of strokes.

Keep in mind the players' attempts to figure out the workings of the NPC faction(s) will be hampered by not every player being present for every session, meaning it'll be a bit random each session as to who at the table knows what, and how much.
 

squibbles

Adventurer
Hey, so this thought is maybe tangential to your topic, but here goes:

I recently came across a cool idea in an OSR snowflake setting called the Planet Eris Gazetteer, which is that the planet goes through a 555 year orbit, 111 of which is a "winter" season, during which most intelligent species must flee underground to survive. I guess that's really just a more regularized version of the "winter is coming" many-year-seasons premise in Game of Thrones.

But just picture how perfectly that setup works with a West Marches sandbox game--At some repeated interval, most surface civilization has to be abandoned due to extreme weather conditions. The PCs and nearly everyone else live for decades in a state of secluded hibernation/shelter. The extreme weather has just ceased and the PCs are now in a position to explore and salvage all kinds of left behind goodies from the before time. They would have records of what existed prior to the extreme weather, but the lay of the land would have changed in the interim period and been filled in by all manner of hardy extreme weather adapted creatures.

k, so more on topic:
What are your thoughts on NPC factions?

The structure of irregular and frequently changing parties and players exploring all over the place as different groups end up together makes ongoing story arcs between adventures rather impractical. But at the same time, bandits not simply being "bandits", but part of a complex web various groups with distinctive territories and patterns of behavior can be as interesting to get familiar with as new unknown monsters. For all intents and purposes, having a goblin tribe in one area an a bugbear tribe in another area is the same thing as having different groups of bandits for example.

You can always create unlimited amounts of backstory that might never come up during play, but what would you consider an "efficient" degree of work to put into such groups? What are the pros and cons for different sizes of groups or the scopes of their territories?

Any thoughts on this subject?
You could make the NPC factions' goals, resources, and bases of operations an unknown that publicly unlocks in the same way that player knowledge of the map does. So if, say, one group of players discovers that the goblin tribe and bugbear tribe hate each-other and could be played against one another, they can record that info for the next group to use if it becomes pertinent. Similarly, if different groups of players discover that the same bandit organization is doing something odd in multiple dungeon complexes, sharing that info across groups could help you build a campaign-wide mystery.
 

Yora

Legend
Players exchanging stories of what they encountered and what they have seen is one of the most unique aspects of the West Marches structure, which you really don't get anywhere else. You get players acting on things they have been told, but it comes without the context of the GM feeding them the pieces that he has chosen to nudge them towards a desired path. The setting and its stories should be tailored with this structural context in mind to get the most out of it.

Storytelling in such an environment is possible, but with the players being spread out, any stories that come from the GM can't be centered around scenes that happen during play. But you can have stories in the marks that are left on the environment. Something that is done very interestingly in the Dark Souls games. There are almost no NPCs ever spelling out anything that happened, and any written down information is scattered in extremely tiny fragments. It's in noticing the connections between the fragments that a larger picture emerges.

For a West Marches campaign, this could be approached as adventures being expedition to collect data, but there also being a super-game (meta-game already being taken as a term) of the players analyzing, discussing, and inyerpreting the data that they all havr collected. This is an activity that all players can participate in between adventure play, regardless of scheduling.

Many rules system already have small mechanics or rules to go and consult a sage to do research in esoteric topics for a hefty fee. This could be a way for players to gain important pieces of information that they lack to make a clear connection between pieces of knowledge they have discovered. Rather than asking the GM to give them a hint, this can be one way in which they can spend their hard earned treasures in the game. Alternatively, they could do their own academic research as an activity that keeps a character skilled in these things occupied for several weeks. Which might be interesting for players with characters that are thus inclined and don't play particularly often.
Though I think it's important to keep such a thing as something that may potentially happen if players start feeling inclined to do so. Being something without real structure, it might very well be something that never takes off and the campaign should still be able to work regardless. But I still think it's worth considering how such efforts by players could be fed when creating the background information.
 

aco175

Legend
I had something similar to the OP describing the openness and episodic structure. I made a bunch of modules for the town of Leilon in FR since it fell into ruins with the change from 4e to 5e. I had a base in an old farm turned fort outside of town as a staging base for the PCs and NPCs of the campaign. Each week there was an adventure of 3-4 hours and it would finish with the PCs returning to the farm afterwards. I wanted the players to be able to play from a few PCs they would choose from each week and be able to try out classes and races from 5e.

In action it did not work as well. The players started to just play one PC each to level that one and then just kept the favorite PC. I think the concept would have worked better if I had more players that could come and go, but I ended with just the core 3 players.
 

WinkyDinkus

Villager
What are your thoughts on NPC factions?

The structure of irregular and frequently changing parties and players exploring all over the place as different groups end up together makes ongoing story arcs between adventures rather impractical. But at the same time, bandits not simply being "bandits", but part of a complex web various groups with distinctive territories and patterns of behavior can be as interesting to get familiar with as new unknown monsters. For all intents and purposes, having a goblin tribe in one area an a bugbear tribe in another area is the same thing as having different groups of bandits for example.

You can always create unlimited amounts of backstory that might never come up during play, but what would you consider an "efficient" degree of work to put into such groups? What are the pros and cons for different sizes of groups or the scopes of their territories?

Any thoughts on this subject?
We actually have a Orc faction now that roams through the wilderness as sellswords and hunters after being forced from their original home. The easiest way to do the faction was to place a couple dungeons and change the flavor to fit the orcs. It gives the players a reason to go there, and every time they meet the orcs and hear the stories of their old temples and manors it gives them just another reason to go out there and secure them.

So I feel like the most efficient way to flesh out a faction or grouping is to just nail down a general vibe you want them to have and just have places important to them that the players can influence/recover. It makes it so it's not out of place with normal adventuring but helps give one extra reason to motivate players to get out and explore.
 

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