West Marches: Secrets & Answers (part 1)

Writing about world-building in the expansion to Microscope got me thinking about West Marches again (more on that in part 2), so I’m taking a break from my kickstarter to answer some questions that have piled up.

Some of these ideas I’ve mentioned before but never elaborated on. Other bits are things I’ve never talked about at all. Because I know lots of people have played or wanted to run West Marches games of their own, I’ve tried to clarify which choices were critical to making the concept work and which were just personal preference. Because there is more than one way to march west…

The Player’s Handbook

Even though I wrote the blog posts in 2007, the actual campaign was years earlier. We started West Marches at the very beginning of 2001 and ended in 2003. 3rd Edition D&D had just come out and we used it for the entire campaign (3.5 wasn’t released until after the game ended).

West Marches character creation followed one very simple rule: you could only build characters using the original Players Handbook. No classes, races, feats, nothing from any other source. And because everything in the Players Handbook was allowed, I could just say, “If it’s in the Player’s Handbook, it’s good” without having to look over anyone’s shoulder or screen characters.

Even religion worked that way. Need a god? Just pick one of the friendly faces in the book, read the tiny paragraph and you’re ready to go. Want to buy something? Check the price on the equipment list and spend away. The only caveat was that no one sold alchemical crap like tanglefoot bags and sunrods for the simple reason that I hated faux-technology stuff. Get a torch or get a wizard!

Using just the Player’s Handbook made life simpler because there were no debates about whether to allow X, Y or Z in the game. It wasn’t even an issue. But even more importantly it started players on the right foot by putting them in the driver’s seat. They didn’t need to ask me to approve anything. If they had the Player’s Handbook, they could make their own decisions. It put them in a West Marches mindset before they even started playing.

Every Square is 5 Feet

The idea that the Player’s Handbook was inviolate, that it was a bedrock you could trust and swear upon, started with character creation but it ran right into game play. Specifically, combat.

Unlike every previous version of D&D (and I mean every single previous version), 3rd Edition did not require judgment calls just to run a simple melee. You didn’t have to ask the GM whether you could get past the lizard man to attack the chief this round or who your fireball would hit. You could just look at the battle map, count the squares and make your move. You could open your PHB, read a page from the combat chapter, and know exactly what you could do and what to expect.

If you started with 3rd Edition or later, this may not seem like a big deal. Trust me, it was. Huge. It fundamentally transformed how D&D was played. As a GM, it meant I could set up the situation and then kick back and let the players decide how to tackle it. They didn’t have to ask me what they were allowed to do each round or hope I ruled in their favor.

Without this fundamental shift, West Marches would not have been possible. Or it would have been a much weaker shadow of itself. Players could never have felt that they were really in control of their own destiny if they had to play “mother may I” in every battle.

Rooting for the Players

Because the rules were well-documented and clear, there were lots of times when West Marches combats would become fascinating (albeit life-threatening) tactical puzzles for everyone at the table. We would all gaze down at the battle map (me included!) and ponder possible moves. Was there a way the barbarian could zig-zag through the kobold hordes and pounce on the shaman lurking in the back? (answer: yes, with clever manuevering he could avoid all but one attack-of-opportunity) Could a totally underpowered rogue anchor the line and prevent the bugbears from wrapping around and flanking the heavy fighters by just dodging like crazy instead of attacking? (answer: yes. By holding her ground in a fight that was out of her league she averted a total party kill at Zirak-zil) Could a staggered retreat get everyone out of the Hydra Cave in one piece? (answer: no. Really, really no)

I’m not talking about telling other players what to do (coaching sucks), I’m talking about analyzing the rules and the options after a player has declared a plan they want to try, but aren’t sure how it will play out mechanically. Someone would say “hmm, could I get to the shaman without getting clobbered by attacks-of-opportunity?” and invite the tactical huddle. These discussions levelled the playing field as far as rules knowledge went. Someone could be totally new to D&D but make reasonable decisions because if there were rules consequences they did not foresee everyone else could (politely) help them understand the odds. Again: informing, not coaching. Characters getting wiped out from making poor decisions was completely legit, but getting wiped out because you misunderstood the rules was not the danger I was trying to promote.

And when I say I would be chatting and trying to figure it out just like everyone else, I mean I really was. Once the combat was under way and the situation was pretty well understood, I often didn’t have any secrets. When a creature attacked, I would happily tell players exactly what its attack bonus was and roll the dice in the open. When a PC attacked, I told them the armor class they were trying to hit. I didn’t tell them actual hit points but I was pretty clear about how wounded something was. Most creatures in West Marches didn’t have weird or surprising abilities. You could generally look at the battle map and see what was up, so I could chat and analyze possible moves just like the other players did.

Being open about basic stats reinforced the idea that the dangers came from the monsters on the table, not from me. Player decisions and the forces in the world mattered, not my whims. When attacks were made, the players looked at the dice, not me. I could root for the players and even help them understand how the rules worked in their favor and it didn’t hurt the tension of the game even slightly. The combat rules of 3rd Edition D&D made that possible.

To be continued. Part 2, West Marches Gods & History…

    Ben Robbins | July 27th, 2015 | | hide comments
  1. #32 Frank Filz says:

    I get the point of not using hexes (saw one of your replies to a question on one of the other posts) but one thing I like about JG style maps is that terrain features are NOT hex shaped, to me that suggests that the hex is just a convenient grid system rather than a definition of the terrain. Sure, sometimes the hexes may inform game play, but I find it easier to escape the hex grid if the terrain already doesn’t follow the grid.

  2. #31 Ben Robbins says:

    Daniel: It’s desirable to get back to town at the end of a session but not mandatory. In the original West Marches campaign, we had several cases where parties intentionally stayed out for two or more sessions, just so they could get more done or penetrate farther into the wilderness. They understood the downside (schedule lock-in) but sometimes it was worth it, or they miscalculated and could not get back in time.

    Either way, getting back to town (or not) is their job, not yours. If the party doesn’t get back, they have to schedule another session with that exact same group of players. Given scheduling difficulties, that may be a pretty big incentive for them to work harder to get back to town. If they lock themselves out of other sessions by not wrapping up their last sortie, that’s on them. That’s not just tough love, it’s the real core tenet of West Marches, which is the players being the decision makers.

  3. #30 Daniel says:

    Hey Ben!

    I oftentimes have parties that only make it midway through a dungeon or an encounter and then the session ends because it’s too late or someone needs to get going. One of the core ideas to a west marches campaign (as I’ve understood it) is that the community’s characters are always located in a central town, so that a random assemblage of players can set out on an adventure (i.e., whatever players are free). Given that ending sessions midway through a dungeon seems to mess up this mechanic, how would you solve/address the problem?

  4. #29 Ben Robbins says:

    Thanks, Chris!

    “I was wondering how you did level-ups? Did you opt for EXP level-ups, or more milestone-based level-ups? And when you added new players, did you start them at first level? Or a higher one? Players who died and rolled new characters? Was there level mismatch within parties? Thanks!”

    I think we’ve talked about this in the comments section — somewhere. Here’s a bit about starting new characters. Mixed level parties happened, and it was up to the players to decide how to handle that.

  5. #28 Chris H. says:

    Just found this West Marches setting, and it sounds like an awesome campaign to run.

    I was wondering how you did level-ups? Did you opt for EXP level-ups, or more milestone-based level-ups? And when you added new players, did you start them at first level? Or a higher one? Players who died and rolled new characters? Was there level mismatch within parties? Thanks!

  6. #27 Ben Robbins says:

    Tantaragla: Yes, “days of travel” is exactly the right way to gauge how big you want to make your map. In West Marches, three days out was a pretty typical jaunt, but there is no golden rule. The important correlation is the frequency and danger of random encounters: you can have less danger and more long distance travel, or increase the danger to the point where even a few hours away from town was high risk.

  7. #26 Tantaragla says:

    I am preparing to run (or at least hope to run) my own west marches game and I have started on the map I will be using for, hopefully, the entire campaign. My thought was to have one big map of all of the areas that only I would see and I could refer to so, if the players say “We are going to go north-east for 6 miles to get to the ruins of Az-Kalmun”, I can look at the map and see that it would actually lead them 2 miles north of the ruins instead.

    With that in mind, I am trying to land on a scale for the map and the world in general. Currently, each hex is 4 miles across (in any direction to keep things simple) and then I’m planning to have a few more detailed maps of specific areas, especially closer to the town and at lower levels.

    What scale did you use and what would you recommend? One way of expressing it might be how far away each of the areas were in terms of days of travel.

  8. #25 Alcamtar says:

    Interesting article! This sheds new light on player-empowerment. I had not considered the mechanical nature of 3E to be an advantage in traditional play, but what you describe has me intrigued. What game system would you use nowadays for this instead of 3E, that does not require much GM adjudication? I think Savage Worlds would do well. I imagine Pathfinder or GURPS would work, but in a sandbox where I find myself winging it I tend to want a lightweight game. I have not played 5E enough to have a feel for it.

    Looking forward to the next installment…

  9. #24 Ben Robbins says:

    Joe: I didn’t use hexes and there was no regular distribution. It all depended on what made sense for the environment. If you’re in empty plains, there might be fewer “things”, but if you’re in the tangled wood or deep mountains, there could be a lot of dungeons etc. right next to each other. If there are lots of goblins, there could lots of goblin lairs, etc.

    It’s important because if the world is logical (i.e. the incidence of encounters or dungeons reflects where creatures would be or build them) then players can take educated guesses when they are exploring. Dungeon size varied, some rather large, some just 5 room areas. But again, go with what makes sense based on the concept.

    Run the simulation in your head: who moved here, what did they build, what happened to them, and then what came next?

  10. #23 Joe says:

    I would love to see this finished. I’m also curious what the scale, and dungeon density was. Did you have a dungeon/cave/what-ever (dcw) in every 6 mile hex, or was it more sparse than that? How big were most of your dungeons? You say most were small, but how many rooms is that? 5? 10? 30? Also how did you handle whether they discover a dcw? I just want to know everything!!!

  11. #22 Ben Robbins says:

    R. Weston: Yeah, I really should never do “next up” teasers, because inevitably that project goes to the back-burner. Sorry about that!

  12. #21 R. Weston says:

    Hi Ben,
    Any chance of “Part 2: West Marches Gods & History…” being posted?
    Pulling our my old Wilderlands materials & getting ready to “West-March” and I’m eager for more inspiration/technical advice.

  13. #20 Niko says:

    1. Friendly reminder that we are still waiting for your back burner articles :)
    2. I have read all your posts and comments on West Marches, there are some stuff that’s still not clear to me.

    a) You did not uses hexes or squares for your map and used printouts of the map with vectors. What does “vector” mean to you, do you mean you had a map with different zoom levels making it a vector map. Or when players went into the wilderness you would draw a line of their path (making it a line vector) on a copy of your existing map? I think this is one of the big reasons why people keep asking to see your maps
    b) How did you foster players sharing their experiences in the email list? Did you provide in game rewards for it? Got lucky with a few chatty players? It happened organically?
    c) You mentioned that the highest level players got was level 7. Was that because of high death rates, players not playing frequently or was your leveling speed slow (for example if they run away like little girls did they get 0 XP?)
    d) How did you handle return trips from exploration assuming no one was pursuing them? Did you still have random encounters or did you kind of hand wave them if it was time to call the game?

    Thanks Ben for inspiring me and getting me excited to run more games for a lot of players :)

  14. #19 Möller says:

    How did you deal with experience points and levels?

    Handing out XP for killing monsters (and especially if that’s the only source for XP) creates a very murder-hobo style game, I imagine. See a bunch of goblins loitering around? Kill for XP!

    And if one goes with the approach to award XP for ‘overcoming challenges’ – how does one define a challenge in a sandbox game? Spotting anowl bear at a distance and deciding not to engage it is hardly a challenge (unless, of course, the owlbear spots you and you have to flee, but I imagine that’s not always the case).

    Also, didn’t a vast disparity in levels among the PCs develop? Did that work?

  15. #18 JohnK says:

    Hey Brock,
    I am currently planning something like this too. I suck at coming up with interesting maps, and I’ve often played in the “theatre of the mind” style where locations are a little less defined.

    I’ve recently finished a megadungeon “open table” that took heavy inspiration from Ben’s West Marches articles. What I did for that was to use an existing setting and it’s maps, and then plug in pre-written dungeons where they made sense. This formed a skeleton of content pre-made for me which I then linked with a crude map showing connections (I even made a version as an in game artefact with the various factions marked as symbols) and the connective tissue of a plot. More important than plot though was sketching out the relationships between the various dungeons and factions to give the players the sensation of an active, living world rather than a hodgepodge of disconnected dungeons.

    It worked far better than I expected, running through dozens of characters and reaching the lofty heights of level 14 before it petered out!

    I am currently planning a West Marches style campaign in a more “pure” form, with a big unexplored jungle wilderness. I plan on developing more of my own dungeons and locations this time, but my basic map I got from the Wilderlands of High Fantasy book which is basically a book of partially keyed hex-maps. (Ben doesn’t use Hex Maps but it’s a common enough way to manage this sort of game). This is really good because the maps are already designed to be evocative and get your mind working, the hex system makes keeping track of things easy and allows for a simple way to figure out how many “things” you need to make (one for every hex!). There are plenty of maps of fantasy kingdoms around, and I’m pretty confident you will be able to find one that suits your needs (or even take a real world map of a terrain that suits your campaign style.)

    Lastly, I can recommend the Alexandrian’s “Hexcrawl” series of articles for a really in depth look at how to make a big wilderness campaign. Good luck!

  16. #17 Brock F. says:

    Hi Ben! Just learned about West Marches and I’m really excited to run a game in this style. My biggest hang-up is the maps—I don’t really have experience making battle maps for my players, and I’ve never run a campaign where it matters so much where exactly everything is. You mentioned in a comment from a few years ago that you’ve been meaning to post about maps, so I was wondering if there’s any chance that’ll be coming up soon. I’m sure you’re crazy-busy with all of the games that are actually making you money, but anything you can do to satisfy a fairly new DM’s curiosity would be much appreciated.

  17. #16 Chris says:

    I’ve been dming for just under a year at this point and, Ben, I have to say, discovering the west march style gameplay has my mind racing. Can’t wait to read more tips/tricks from you whenever you get around to it!

  18. #15 Ben Robbins says:

    Thanks, Caleb. Yep I have a few more topics to cover but they’ve been on the back burner.

  19. #14 Caleb G says:

    Hey Ben, still planning on more articles in this vein? I’d love to run my own WM game, and look forward to any wisdom you feel like imparting.

  20. #13 Anonymous says:

    @Stephen D

    Are you still looking to recruit a co-DM? I would be very interested in running a game like this, but at the same time wanting to learn how someone else is running it. Contact me via roll20. My public profile is:

  21. #12 Stephen D says:

    Been running a West Marches on Roll20 for about 4 months now; with 20+ players and most of the elements you suggested Ben. I have wanted to do it for years but never dared, but I it’s awesome. We just finished 43 and I am having to recruit Co-Gms to keep up with demand.

    All I can say is; a VTT and Roll20 makes this kind of game even better than it would have been face to face (I know because I also run it face to face). We can meet more often (3 times a week) and we can include people from all over the world.

    I have a few additions as well; I use 5e and discontinous magic. In Maladon, magic is geographical and so there are places where all spells work and places where you can only cast cantrips. It allows the players to work out how dangerous an area is by testing the aura. The ore powerful the aura the more powerful monsters you find there; also keeps my players from doing anything too destructive in town, since the town has a very low aura. Seems to work very well for me.

  22. #11 John Breckenridge says:

    Thanks for the response!
    I’ve been thinking about running my own campaign for a while now and have some ideas that I am excited to try. One thing I am struggling to figure out is treasure. What did your players usually find for loot? Items that can be used by the players, mundane or magical, are obviously great, but what would they do with a pile of gold coin, gems, and a piece of priceless art? It doesn’t seem like a campaign where the players would go into town and buy a +2 greatsword or a pearl of power. Nor does it seem like the type of game where the players would spend 10,000gp on a bunch of hirelings and a horde of donkeys. What do players do with the stuff? Did you just not hand our much more than is usable on mundane items? Did you prevent them from liquidating what they found so their characters would just be “stuck” with wearing fancy non-magic rings and setting up an art gallery in their tavern room?

    Looking forward to future posts on this topic!

  23. #10 ben robbins says:

    John: Yep, straight battle map combat. Outdoors I tried a variety of methods for doing terrain, but one of the simplest was keeping an envelope of colored paper cut into “tetris shapes” (L’s, T’s, etc) that fit the squares of the battle map. So if I needed to throw down rough terrain, bushes, fallen logs, I could just pepper the map with them. Since they fit the squares you knew exactly which squares were affected. I also used wooden blocks at times, but those were more cumbersome to carry around.

    Combat totally depended on what the players did. If an archer opens fire at the goblins a hundred yards away (or a goblin can shoot at the party), we’re in rounds now even if we aren’t using a map yet. In that case you’re just describing things verbally (“okay this round the goblins move 30 feet closer” etc)

  24. #9 John Breckenridge says:

    Hey there! I just heard about West Marches and really like the concept. I will likely be attempting to my own campaign in a similar style. It sounds like you are pretty busy with Microscope explorer, but the burning question I have after reading all your posts on the West Marches is how you set up combat. Was it always on a gridded map with minis? Would you usually scatter some terrain around? If a raiding party of goblins was hunting down the PCs, how far apart would you start a combat?

    I would really like to hear some more about how you managed to run what sounded like an excellent experience for those involved.

  25. #8 Steve Jolly says:

    Ben, no worries. This type of roleplaying has actually made me excited about fantasy roleplaying again… It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything in the fantasy genre. Thanks for sharing!

  26. #7 ben robbins says:

    Steve Jolly: I’ve got a bunch more written, but I’ve been super-busy getting Microscope Explorer out the door. I’ll see what I can do.

  27. #6 Steve Jolly says:

    Ben, any idea when you will be posting the next part? Thanks!

  28. #5 SaveVsFail says:

    Woooo!! More WestMarches chatter. Super happy to see this.

  29. #4 ben robbins says:

    @Vivificient: I’m going to talk mapping in one of the upcoming Secrets & Answers posts.

  30. #3 Vivificient says:

    How did you handle battle terrain in the game? For example, if the players ran into some goblins in the woods, did you have an erasable battle mat and draw trees on it? Or was there a different system?

  31. #2 ben robbins says:

    So long as the core group understands the plan of having a fluid roster, adding people should be fine. If they don’t, it may be a shock.

    Don’t worry about stuff not getting discovered. That happens. It just means you have more material waiting in the wings. So long as the players are finding things to do and aren’t just wandering bored, you’re okay.

  32. #1 nthdegree256 says:

    Awesome. I’m running a heavily-inspired-by-WM game in 5th Edition D&D right now (I have a session tonight, in fact!)… it’s dropping the ball a bit in that I don’t have a good ad-hoc mixture of players, mostly just a core group of regulars, but I’m hoping I might be able to turn that around soonish.

    I’m finding I might have made the scale of the world a little too big (I’ve run over a dozen sessions and there’s a ton of stuff still in the “starting areas” that no one has even glanced at) and my time might have been better spent making a smaller, tighter setting, but I think it’ll shake out.

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