Alarming fact: brave GMs all over the place are taking up the torch and starting their own West Marches games. Scary isn’t it?
I’ve already had some private email conversations about how one would actually build and run a West Marches of their very own. Maybe you’ve got the bug too. Early symptoms include a desire to build vast wilderness areas and enlist hordes of players to explore it. Sound familiar? Then read on for a few (hopefully) helpful tips:
make town safe and the wilds wild — Having the town be physically secure (walled or in some cases protected by natural features like rivers or mountains) is very useful for making a sharp “town = safe / wilderness = danger” distinction. Draconian law enforcement inside town, coupled with zero enforcement in the wilds outside town, also helps. Once you are outside the town you are on your own.
keep NPC adventurers rare — Or even better non-existent. It’s up to the players to explore the wilderness, not NPCs. As soon as you have NPCs going on adventures of their own you move the focus away from player-initiated action. NPC adventurers also makes it harder to explain why interesting things weren’t already discovered — players love being the first to find the Horned Tower or the Abbot’s Study. Keep this in mind when you devise the background for your region. Is it a newly opened frontier? Or is adventuring just something no one in their right mind does in this world (the West Marches premise)?
build dungeons with treasure rooms, locked rooms, pockets of danger — A solid party may be able to wipe out the primary critters in a dungeon, but there should always be spots that are a lot harder to clear. On those rare occasions when a group _does_ manage to clear a dungeon or crack a treasure room, they will stand on the tables in the tavern and cheer, not in some small part to brag to the other players who weren’t on that sortie.
appear passive — The world may be active, but you the GM should appear to be passive. You’re not killing the party, the dire wolf is. It’s not you, it’s the world. Encourage the players to take action, but leave the choices up to them. Rolling dice in the open helps a lot. The sandbox game really demands that you remain neutral about what the players do. It’s their decisions that will get them killed or grant them fame and victory, not yours. That’s the whole idea.
provide an easy lead to get new players started — Once players are out exploring, each new discovery motivates them to search more, but how do you get them started? Every time I introduced a batch of new players I gave them a very basic treasure map that vaguely pointed to somewhere in the West Marches and then let them go look for it. Whether it was the dwarven “treasure beyond bearing” or the gold buried beneath the Red Willow, a no-brainer “go look for treasure here” clue gets the players out of town and looking around. Of course once the players are in the wilds, they may find that getting to that treasure is much harder than it looks.
the adventure is in the wilderness, not the town — As per the discussion of NPCs above, be careful not to change the focus to urban adventure instead of exploration. You can have as many NPCs as you want in town, but remember it’s not about them. Once players start talking to town NPCs, they will have a perverse desire to stay in town and look for adventure there. “Town game” was a dirty word in West Marches. Town is not a source of info. You find things by exploring, not sitting in town — someone who explores should know more about what is out there than someone in town.
let the players take over — Don’t write game summaries, don’t clean up the shared map. You want the players to do all those things. If you do it, you’ll just train them not to.
competition is what it’s all about — Fair rewards, scarcity, bragging rights — these are the things that push the game higher. You could have a “solo” West Marches game with just one group doing all the exploring, and it would probably be a fun and pleasant affair, but it’s _nothing_ compared to the frenzy you’ll see when players know other players are out there finding secrets and taking treasure that _they_ could be getting, if only they got their butts out of the tavern. (Hmm, is this why I get a kick out of running Agon? It’s true, I’m a cruel GM.)
require scheduling on the mailing list — It doesn’t matter whether a bunch of players agreed to go on an adventure when they were out bowling, they have to announce it on the mailing list or web forum (whichever you’re using for your scheduling). This prevents the game from splintering into multiple separate games. If you notice cliques forming you can make a rule requiring parties to mix after two adventures. Conversely if you notice players being dropped from follow-up sorties too often just because some people can’t wait to play, you can require parties to stay together for two adventures. That forces a little more long time strategy in party selection, less greedy opportunism. Season to taste.
fear the social monster — This is the big, big grand-daddy or all warnings: even more so than many games, West Marches is a social beast. In normal games players have an established place in the group. They know they are supposed to show up every Tuesday to play — they don’t have to think about that or worry about whether they “belong” in the group. On the other hand West Marches is a swirling vortex of ambition and insecurity. How come no one replied when I tried to get a group together last week? Why didn’t anybody invite me to raid the ogre cave? And so on and so on ad infinitum. The thrilling success or catastrophic failure of your West Marches game will largely hinge on the confidence or insecurity of your player pool. Buckle up.
Running your own West Marches game? Post a link in the comments so everyone can take a look and grow green with envy. I’ve got some links I need to post but if you hurry you can beat me to it.