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D&D General Worldbuilding considerations for a West Marches sandbox

jgsugden

Legend
1.) If I have 8 or fewer players, I wouldn't do Western Marches. I'd just run for whoever can make it each time we run and adjust he encounters on the fly for the size of the party.

2.) If running Western Marches, I'd give each player an allowance every month. Then, they'd get to bid parts of their accumulated allowance to get the PCs in on a session. The highest X player bids get their PCs into the adventure for a given night (with the losers getting their allowance back).

3.) I'd make a three strikes rule - Nobody can be on three adventures together in a row. If your last two adventures featured the same party member, and you do not outbid them for the upcoming adventure, you are dropped from the adventure. So if Bob and Doug do adventures 1 and 2 together, then Bob does 3 alone, and both of them want to go on adventure 4, then Doug has to outbid Bob to go on the adventure. Bob does not because his last adventure didn't feature Doug. If Bob outbids Doug, and they both want to go an adventure 5, Bob has to outbid Doug again to go because adventure 3 was within 2 adventures, still. If he does, then on 6 both have to outbid each other or one stays behind. Of course, they always have to outbid other PCs, too. This discourages the same party playing adventures over and over and over together like a party and encourages switching things up.

4.) I'd be redundant with information the group needs to find as I would assume no sharing of information will take place.
 

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We're running a West Marches style campaign set in Barovia (and, now, greater Ravenloft). Two DMs and 15 players (DMs get to play when not running). Each player has 3 PCs. Try as we might, many sessions do not end up back at the base (which is a basement barracks we set up in St Andraal's Church in Vallaki). Multi-session adventures are fine since if a player wants to play in another adventure, they use one of their other characters. We haven't used this conceit yet but, if we really want to force the whole get-back-to-base thing at the end of a session, the Mists would be quite a useful tool to "teleport" them back if the party didn't voluntarily retreat... with a level of exhaustion that doesn't heal with a long rest b/c Barovia.

Travel can certainly be part of the adventure but, with 3 hour sessions, we do handwave a bit of that sprinkled with tone-setting narrative. The players can be elicited for ideas, too. "What does Rhogar see that seems out of place on the Svalich Road heading towards Old Bone Grinder?" or "Your party encounters 4 twig blights crossing the road... how do you deal with them?" But, keep these vignettes short and sweet - and, ideally, as foreshadowing - then get on to the meat of the adventure.

I strongly recommend a Discord server for ease of communication about table rules, scheduling, posting character sheets and handouts, and a place for the characters to exchange stories back at the base between sessions. In our campaign, the DM says when they are running a session and puts out a few ideas for quests, if the players don't already have something in mind. We typically limit sessions to 6 players with a few spots filled on a First-to-message-the-DM basis and a few spots filled with a Discord roll off of sorts. It's been fun - we started in January and are now approaching our 40th session.
 

Yora

Legend
We actually have a Orc faction now that roams through the wilderness as sellswords and hunters after being forced from their original home.
One fun idea would be to modify the wandering creatures tables for an area after the destruction of major monster lairs. A certain creature type can be removed from the table of one area completely after a stronghold has be cleared of them, and you could even have survivors set up camp in a different area where they are now added to the encounter table. You could potentially even have situations where the players notice that their old beloved enemies have moved to a different area and try to go searching for their new base.
Adjusting the odds for encountering that type in a given area probably makes too small a difference to be notable by the players, unless the chance for that particular encounter was very high to begin with.

The same method also makes sense to get used in large dungeons.

Similarly, for particularly large and memorable monsters like dragons, rocs, or a particularly mean spirited giant crocodile, you could put them in both a lair and also on a random encounter table. If the creature gets killed either in a raid on its lair or in a random encounter, it gets removed from both. This could lead to situations where a dragon gets killed any lots of parties go looking for its now hopefully abandoned lair.
 


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.
For a similar theme, check out FASA's old Earthdawn. The premise of the setting is that spikes in magical energy forced various groups into giant protective bunkers (Kaers) for a time until the the magic levels drop. The players then play characters from one of these Kaers exploring and reclaiming a lost world.
 

Norton

Explorer
I have a group with two sets of characters. Due to absences, we started up a "side" campaign in the same city. They've since met their counterparts, and now we deploy mixed parties for quests depending on who can make the session. It allows one player to have two PCs at once if that's what it takes, which keeps things ticking over. What also helps is that they have a boat, so one group stays afloat and the other deboards for action. Occasionally, we cut back to the onboard group for action to keep it interesting.

One thing I'm going to do is employ the video game trope of "fast travel" via a form of Shadow Walking using a despair table. You can get to remote areas in a fraction of the time, but it comes at a price. Luckily, many of the effects are minor or cosmetic but they're at least enough to keep the feature from being abused.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
2.) If running Western Marches, I'd give each player an allowance every month. Then, they'd get to bid parts of their accumulated allowance to get the PCs in on a session. The highest X player bids get their PCs into the adventure for a given night (with the losers getting their allowance back).

3.) I'd make a three strikes rule - Nobody can be on three adventures together in a row. If your last two adventures featured the same party member, and you do not outbid them for the upcoming adventure, you are dropped from the adventure. So if Bob and Doug do adventures 1 and 2 together, then Bob does 3 alone, and both of them want to go on adventure 4, then Doug has to outbid Bob to go on the adventure. Bob does not because his last adventure didn't feature Doug. If Bob outbids Doug, and they both want to go an adventure 5, Bob has to outbid Doug again to go because adventure 3 was within 2 adventures, still. If he does, then on 6 both have to outbid each other or one stays behind. Of course, they always have to outbid other PCs, too. This discourages the same party playing adventures over and over and over together like a party and encourages switching things up.
A bit confused here: in this example are Bob and Doug (last name McKenzie, of course!) in-game PCs or at-table players?

If they're PCs, this is cool. If they're players, this seems kind of bizarre.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I have a group with two sets of characters. Due to absences, we started up a "side" campaign in the same city. They've since met their counterparts, and now we deploy mixed parties for quests depending on who can make the session. It allows one player to have two PCs at once if that's what it takes, which keeps things ticking over. What also helps is that they have a boat, so one group stays afloat and the other deboards for action. Occasionally, we cut back to the onboard group for action to keep it interesting.
My current campaign is similar. Each player has numerous PCs out there; these characters will form into parties, run together for a while, then disperse and-or interweave with another party, reshuffle the lineup, and keep going. Then I'll put that lot on hold and catch up another party elsewhere (same players) as keeping all the PCs vaguely up to date in game time is very important and can be a challenge sometimes.
 

Norton

Explorer
My current campaign is similar. Each player has numerous PCs out there; these characters will form into parties, run together for a while, then disperse and-or interweave with another party, reshuffle the lineup, and keep going. Then I'll put that lot on hold and catch up another party elsewhere (same players) as keeping all the PCs vaguely up to date in game time is very important and can be a challenge sometimes.
Yep, can be a real challenge and requires two sets of notes with loads of NPCs. Basically, you're running multiple campaigns at once. Even the players get crossed up now and again about who they're playing. The tension leading up to their parties meeting was great fun, though. They kept narrowly missing one another and I was proud of how no one tried to force the issue. When they came together, they were on opposing factions. I fully expected each player to lose a PC in battle, but they found common ground very organically. Probably my favorite DM moment of all time.
 

Yora

Legend
I've been thinking about practical considerations regarding having players discover the history of the land as they are rummaging through the ruins, and when you have multiple layers of civilizations across thousands of years, then making that knowledge about specific historical individuals feels rather bizarre. It's something that works in the Dark Souls setting because it's the story of the first king of the gods and his court. In Dark Souls 3, it appears to be mostly about important people in a conflict that seems to have happened very recently, only having ended weeks ago when pretty much everyone was dead.

If you have archeological stratas that cover whole civilizations that are all long gone, individual people must have been extremely important if they still dominate the iconography and inscriptions of most ruins. My current plan is to make most information that can be found in the ruins about only three people. The last leader of the Asura and the first Naga king who defeated him, and the last Naga king who saw the naga realm fall apart. It's one story from two perspectives, and another story that was the most recent and best preserved one that took place. It also makes sense that the Naga would have a lot of monuments to their first king who defeated the Asura throught the entire history of the kingdom. Mention of any other historical people would then be in reference to those three primary figures.

However, another potentially interesting story that would work well because the evidence is still well preserved is the fate of previous famous explorers of the region. Who might have become quite famous 30 years or so ago, but then mysteriously vanished. Players would be able to discover their old abandoned camps, and occasionally even find their records that didn't rot away. I think that shouldn't be a novel that is scattered through the game world in separate chapters, but simply discovering what happened to the explorers and what they found after they were last seen could be very fun for the players.
 

MattW

Explorer
As soon as I read the original post, I thought it could work with something like the original "Star Trek". Each adventure involves a different group of scouts, or diplomats, or spies, or commandos...

The concept of a mobile base could work with a low-tech and magical background. Perhaps the player's base is a large (and magical) sailing ship or a huge assemblage of rafts that drifts with the ocean currents; each adventure would involve a different island, or a salvage mission, or a fight with pirates.

Or, my personal favourite: A turtle island. Look at the castle! It's small enough that the players can get to know the inhabitants and large enough to get some urban adventures with some political problems...
turtle_island.jpg
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yep, can be a real challenge and requires two sets of notes with loads of NPCs. Basically, you're running multiple campaigns at once. Even the players get crossed up now and again about who they're playing. The tension leading up to their parties meeting was great fun, though. They kept narrowly missing one another and I was proud of how no one tried to force the issue. When they came together, they were on opposing factions. I fully expected each player to lose a PC in battle, but they found common ground very organically. Probably my favorite DM moment of all time.
Heh - neat trick to get them to end up potentially opposed to each other!

There's enough friends in common and past associations etc. between the main characters in my game that I don't think that'd ever happen; unless I got them to start an entirely new party independent of any existing characters and worked that in somehow. Probably could have got away with this in the early days, but that ship has now long since sailed.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Or, my personal favourite: A turtle island. Look at the castle! It's small enough that the players can get to know the inhabitants and large enough to get some urban adventures with some political problems...
turtle_island.jpg
Yowie - just think how many xp we'd get for killing that sucker! :)
 

Norton

Explorer
Heh - neat trick to get them to end up potentially opposed to each other!

There's enough friends in common and past associations etc. between the main characters in my game that I don't think that'd ever happen; unless I got them to start an entirely new party independent of any existing characters and worked that in somehow. Probably could have got away with this in the early days, but that ship has now long since sailed.
I see what you're saying. Our "second" group were intended to be mercenaries for hire and nothing more. Just an excuse to get a run out on a night when we were missing two or more of the six. All I needed to do was connect their employers to something afoot that was at odds with the other group and it was on – eventually. I think it took almost 8 months and something like 20 sessions for them to finally meet! By then, they had been disillusioned by their circumstances and the original party had made plenty of money and was in need of some muscle themselves. We did create a brother situation between two of them, but to my players' credit they hated each other and it actually almost scuppered their alliance rather than facilitate it. Good times.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I think you should all read about draakdeure


Basically, this is a great city ruled by a greedy dragon. The place is very bureaucratic, and there is a ministry of treasure acquisition. Adventurers work for this ministry. The city has these doors, magical portals, that will go somewhere else, where there are valuables. The adventurers go through the door, look for treasure, and come back. (the doors only last 12-24 hours, so there is a time limit).

It is a great way to do one shots, or serial one-shots, and is a great alternative to a west-march format :) Not only does it allow for multiple players, it also allows for multiple GMs :)
 
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77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
I ran a West Marches-style campaign back in 4E (there were only 5 players so we didn't get the full experience).

Regarding lore, there were four distinct eras in the region's history, with the oldest being a mythical era thousands of years ago, and the most recent being an influx of colonists and adventurers just 20 years ago. Absolutely everything related to one of those eras, and each era had its own secret story to uncover. For example, there were no +1 longswords; instead there were Imperial arming swords and Algrathian clan swords and so forth. This went double for dungeons, which always were created by someone for some purpose. This really reinforced the four eras, and linked them together (like an Imperial fort built atop older Algrathian ruins).

Much lore was also delivered via books written by the Imperial historian, Sanctimonius Loquacius. I'd write like a half-page summary of some legend or historical event, which would be full of holes ("No-one knows what became of warrior-queen Boacina") and full of clues ("The ancient kings, by tradition, had stands of yellow beech planted on their burial mounds"). Basically, in my West Marches, you couldn't so much as fight a band of goblin raiders without tripping over something linked to the lore of the region.
 

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