West Marches: Running Your Own

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:

Building It

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.

Running It

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.

but wait, there’s more: West Marches: Secrets & Answers (part 1)

    Ben Robbins | May 12th, 2008 | , | hide comments
  1. #311 Ben Robbins says:

    “How would you deal with a party that wants to treat NPCs as the game’s primary source of information?”

    First of all, tell the players that’s not how this game works. Explain the west marches model, don’t keep it a secret.

    Second, keep townsfolk boring, or at least normal. They have normal lives, normal jobs, and just want to get along and not get killed by monsters, which of course is why they live in town. Any third-hand rumors they know about what’s in the wilderness could fit on a postage stamp. I didn’t always follow my own rules, because I was making up West Marches as I went along and hadn’t figured it all out yet, and it led to some tail-chasing games.

    “How do you deal with parties of highly variable level.”

    Honestly that’s up to the players to sort out. Picking a team is their job, not yours. If low level characters want to team up with high level characters they can, but in my experience most people prefer to be heroes in their own adventures rather than endangered sidekicks.

    But if you don’t have enough players for multiple groups, a lot of the logic of west marches simply won’t apply.

  2. #310 Adam says:

    Thanks Dave and Ben for the thoughtful responses. One last (maybe?) question. How do you deal with parties of highly variable level. I read in earlier comments how higher-level characters will buff up their low level mates with weapons and armor because it’s to their advantage to be able to go after bigger monsters with more treasure. But it could be just as true that once your character dies and you’re reset, no one wants you to join a foray because you’d hold them back. Or you do join, but are always the first to die, so now you’re perpetually first level. A really Machiavellian character would bring the newbies along so they can help kill the monster but wouldn’t protect them if they’re about to die – more treasure for me. Not a problem in a game with 20 players 1/4 of whom have recently died at any given time. But with a smaller group, would you tone down the challenges a little, at least till they get over a hump of survivability? That feels very counter to the West Marches philosophy.

    Dave, our middle-schoolers have been roleplaying for several years now. It’s a very informal form of collaborative storytelling with no character sheets or stats or anything. One of them sets up the story and the others describe their actions, the “DM” adjudicates and occasionally they’ll roll a d20 to decide if something succeeds. I think that because of that, they didn’t fit into the stages you described. They intuitively understood that it was most fun to just tell a good story. What I have seen is variability in their ability to separate their characters from themselves. They just started playing “real” D&D about a year ago, and are moving more into the hack-and-slash mold you describe for middle-schoolers. I’m sure the structure of the game contributes to that, with its heavy emphasis on rules around combat, and less rigid and clear rules around every other aspect of the life of the characters.

  3. #309 Dave says:

    It’s really interesting to think about trying this with kids. I run Dungeons & Dragons groups with kids age 6 years through high school. I found that the way they play is really different than the way adults play, and you can even break up the way kids play into age groups. The 6 to 10-year-olds are all about silliness and exploration. They don’t even want to kill monsters. They tried to befriend them and give them names like “pancake.” The middle schoolers are quite the opposite, they want to slash everything they see with the mighty broadsword. The high schoolers want an intriguing story that features them as the heroes. I think a Marches game could work if you have those tendencies in mind. I would not try it with the younger set because, as Ben said, it would probably lead to hurt feelings. A six, 10, or even 11-year-old isn’t equipped to deal with being “left out“ of a given adventure. However, I think a group of high school kids — the right group — could really get into it. I see them sharing information about what they saw in the woods or what they found in the tower and getting excited about that. I’d love to try it with a group of really involved teams. Could be fun.

  4. #308 Dave says:

    My first question is about this: “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.”

    Players — especially veterans — are going to talk to PCs. Years of playing have trained them to do what I call the “Law & Order” scene: interrogate that NPC with a barrage of open-ended questions, insight checks and persuasion checks until they get the information they want. How would you deal with a party that wants to treat NPCs as the game’s primary source of information?

  5. #307 Ben Robbins says:

    I’m not an expert on gaming with kids. That’s a whole realm of knowledge right there.

    I think you already know this, but I wouldn’t put the cart before the horse. It’s more important to create parameters that work for your group than to adhere to what worked for me. That’s more important than running a “west marches” game, of course. But you know that.

    Even with adults, picking teams could lead to bad feelings. I’m not sure I’d want to see that model with kids at all, so the system you described of just going with whoever shows up sounds better.

    re sharing info, very small snippets are just as good. No need for anyone to write big stories unless they want to. If someone just says “we saw zombies in the forest!” that’s good intel for someone who hasn’t been in that part of the forest. Of course until you have enough players that people have separate info, that won’t really matter.

    Another trick you could use is mandate ten or fifteen minutes at the start of each session where the players all talk to each other, not the DM, and share what they know, discuss where to go. The more the DM can stay out of that converation, the more you are putting the players in charge. Let them work it out for a bit.

    “We’ll also provide some in-game benefits for game summary authors.”

    I’m entirely against that. Reward them outside of game if you want, but not in-game.

    The world definitely does not have to be static. Anything that isn’t driven by some scheming mastermind is totally fine. The world should always be a living, changing thing. Some of those changes caused by the PCs (like when they clear a dungeon and create a vacuum something else moves in to fill) and others not. The key is to never make it feel like they are required or expected to respond to current events. And that’s hard, because when players hear you describe something they very naturally assume that’s the plot, that’s what they’re supposed to deal with. Which is why it’s often safer to do less of that rather than more in a west marches game.

  6. #306 Adam says:

    I guess my last post didn’t really have any questions. I’m mostly looking for your perspective on the changes and how much they might break the experience. The kids really love the game we’ve been running for them, and I really want to run a West Marches style game. I’m just trying to decide if mergine them is a good fit.

    I had one other question about modifying the West Marches model. I get the impetus behind not having a plot and villians with plans. But is it necessary to have the world be essentially static? There could be things going on elsewhere that affect the world. An earthquake to the north exposes a seam of radioactive/wild magic rock causing the orcs who live there to start mutating and dying. As a result, they start moving south into West Marches territory. Sites that had been cleared are now full of orc parties some with weird powers.

    I guess this might come from the characters living through a modern historic period where events off camera affect life in the West Marches as they unfold.

  7. #305 Adam says:

    I love the idea of the West Marches and am thinking of adapting it to a game I co-run. I have a few questions, because ours will of necessity be a little different.

    My biggest concern is that most of our players are pre-teen and not yet able to carry out extended email conversations or schedule activities on their own. So at the outset, we’ll be breaking some of the principles of player agency. We’ll have a regularly scheduled session, weekly or bi-weekly, and anyone who wants to can show up. Also, we’ll let them decide the destination for each outing, but that will likely be through us asking them where they want to go, rather than them initiating those threads. So it’ll be slightly less player-driven. I’d love to do it fully player driven, but I don’t think they’re up to it. We’re actually hoping that playing D&D will help them grow this muscle.

    Another aspect of this is that they’re unlikely to write long game summaries. Though they’re all into reading, they’re not big writers yet. This is another ulterior motive for us, to give them material they’re passionate about writing about. We might start with audio-blog entries, since it might be easier for them to record their summaries orally. But those will likely be hard to listen to at first. It’s as hard to edit a good audio story as to write the story. Harder, actually. We’ll also provide some in-game benefits for game summary authors.

    Finally, we have a small group – 6 players (1 adult, 1 teen and 4 pre-teen). We’re teaching them D&D in part because we love it, and in part because we think it’s a great way to build some of these skills, as well as social skills. But we won’t have the large group competition-based experience that really makes the West Marches special, at least at first. You’ve said this works, but isn’t as good. I’m hoping it’ll be good enough for us.

  8. #304 John says:

    @Ben: Thanks for all the tidbits! I like me some lists and I think I’ve now got a feeling of how much should be on that list; one to two dozen unique features or so; stuff like camps and dungeons :-) Still curious about West Marches’ size, but I can be patient ;-)

  9. #303 Ben Robbins says:

    @John: In reverse order…

    FYI West Marches was 3.0, not 3.5 — 3.5 wasn’t out yet. The hydra was CR 8, but it was well-foreshadowed and easily avoided — just don’t go to Hydra Canyon (and yeah, I would apologize to Mike again for the second hydra, but frankly the reveal of the magical carvings that released the hydras as guardians was fantastic). There were also dangerous things that players never got close to, like the sorcerous goblin king (CR 10). Of course the very highest any PC ever got was level 7, so it’s all relative.

    But also my impression of 3E is that a single creature was mechanically less of a threat than a mob of weaker creatures, even if the EL ends up the same. You can dump debuffing spells on a singular creature and really concentrate fire, etc. One Doom goes a long way. Getting tangled up fighting hordes that kept getting reinforcements (like goblins or lizard men) was the real killer.

    Hmm, unique dungeons? Hard to say. There were lots of sites that were very small (3-5 rooms), and then fewer “proper” dungeons in the classic D&D sense. Five big ones got the lion’s share of traffic: the Frog Marsh kobold caves, dwarven caves, Opal Caves, the Monastery and Zirak-zil. Honestly big dungeons aren’t as well suited to the model as small ones, since it’s harder to wrap single session excursions and still get deep into a dungeon. You can design larger dungeons that are basically wider instead of deeper, if that makes sense — you can get in multiple ways and explore different areas, rather than entering one way and just having to go deeper and deeper. Half of the big dungeons followed that model. But really the vast majority of action was wilderness or individual sites, rather than dungeons. And the ideal case is that existing areas get reused and revisited. Players like exploring new territory, but they also really enjoy having the expertise of being somewhere they know. They get to savor the knowledge that maybe other players don’t have, because they earned it.

    re the size of the West Marches, more about that later

  10. #302 John says:

    Hello, any and all!

    I’m tentatively looking to start a West Marches style campaign sometime next year, in the frozen reaches of my homebrewn world. I’ve done some rough ‘sketching’ of said world, but there’s still more to add.

    As preparations for my Great Works, I’d like to know some numbers. I know that what was done before is not the end-all and be-all, but I’d like a starting point;
    1. How big are the Western Marches? How many square miles were described?
    2. How many (unique) dungeons were there?
    3. I understand that D&D 3.5 was used; what was about the highest CR stomping about?

  11. #301 Ben Robbins says:

    Chgowiz: Congratulations, Michael! Ten years is a hell of a run for any game!

  12. #300 Chgowiz - Michael S says:

    So ten years later…

    No, really. Ten years later, my campaign that I started in West Marches style is still going strong.

    It probably looks more like a regular campaign now. The group competition never really happened, but a lot of the other approaches that you outlined, I still use to this day. I have 3 separate campaigns in my world, and they all roughly follow the West Marches style.

    So your experiment is still going strong… Thank you, Ben.

  13. #299 Ben Robbins says:

    Billy: Short answer: 5th.

    Long answer: In West Marches, there’s a lot of exploration, not just battle map combat, and 4th is geared much more heavily towards the combat side of things. Plus it has pretty rigid expectations about balance, which also doesn’t fit West Marches.

    3rd had great rules for attribute loss, exhaustion, etc. that could model attrition and resource management without just inflicting hit point damage. Do you still keep going if you’re Fatigued and -2 on Dex from swamp fever, even if you’re at full hit points? When you’re picking a system for West Marches, granular resource management is a good thing to look for.

  14. #298 Billy says:

    Hey Ben! I am formulating a WM game and had a question for you — if you were to start a West Marches game right now, would you use 4th edition or 5th? I love the combat and the inherent rewards of leveling present in 4th, however if I want to make Magic items more sought-after and truly make PCs feel more like small fish in a big pond, 5th starts the players as low as they can get and gives much more meaningful magic item boosts. What would your reasons be for choosing one over the other? Side note: a substantial percentage of players may be new, or have only experienced 5e.

    For the record, I only think of 4e and 5e because those are the editions I’ve played — not planning on using PF for this campaign.

  15. #297 Ben Robbins says:

    Charles: I think the important thing is that no aspect of the West Marches model is set in stone, or more important than playing in a style that works for your group and situation.

    I encouraged people to return at the end of each session, but we did have cases where groups stayed out for more than one session. But the price was that they had so schedule again with the same group. The trick was to avoid having that become the norm, because then you really just have separate adventuring groups — the scheduling lock-in alone was a pretty strong incentive to get back. If more double-session adventures works for your group, give it a try.

    Another thing to watch out for is the “congo line” where one or a few players are leading different groups back to the same place. For the returning players it’s a continuing exploration, but they may naturally want to rush past the “known” parts, which means the other players are just along for the ride for a chunk of the adventure. The experienced players may start treating them as interchangeable parts to round out the party, which is no good.

  16. #296 Charles says:

    Heyo! So, I started a West Marches game of my own. The campaign has been going strong for some months now, and the players are going on adventures almost every weekend.

    However, we’re hitting a snag in one area of the game. The problem is: how does the group deal with a session that doesn’t wrap up nicely?

    For example, in a normal campaign, if players have to go home while their characters are still in the middle of a large dungeon, they can just end the game there and return where they left off the next week. But in a West Marches game, this clearly isn’t possible, since adventurers need to return to town in-between sessions.

    For now, I’ve instituted the (metagame) rule that everyone must leave the dungeon and return to town at the end of the session, and they can come back with a different party some other time if they choose. But this solution is driving my players nuts, because it causes them to rush through things they wouldn’t normally rush through in the hopes of finding “the loot” that they suspect must be present in any given dungeon.

    Since they only have around four real-life hours to get to the adventure site, retrieve all the gold pieces they can carry, and get out, it puts a lot of strain on them and on me to push the game forward, often at the sake of the story and the “juice” of the game itself.

    How was this situation handled in the original West Marches campaign / how have other people dealt with this issue?

    Thank you so much!

  17. […] with enough knowledge for players to chose a direction that suits their goals. In his influential West Marches campaign, Ben Robbins never started players empty handed. “Every time I introduced a batch of new players, […]

  18. #294 Drul says:

    First of all, thanks for this awesome site and the WM section in particular.

    There’s one thing I’m wondering about: Do the PCs ever find anybody (or maybe sometimes anything) to talk to outside town? I just found that there should not be NPC adventurers (which seems reasonable), but what about hermits, tribes, outcasts?

    For example, at http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/81/grand-experiments-west-marches-part-4-death-danger/ you mention danger pockets that are well known – does this mean well known back in town, or to some other source of information outside?
    And who named the regions ingame? Is there enough geographic knowledge in town, did the players name them, or someone else? Or are the names metagame knowledge that appears on this site, but would not generelly be used ingame?

  19. […] insofar as you can while not overstepping into player territory. We will see later that, just as Ben Robbins wrote regarding re-using physical territory in his West Marches game, Jamison emphasizes re-using character territory in his gaming […]

  20. #292 Oliver says:

    Thank you Ben for your inspiring posts!

    If there are some german speaking reading, I’ve made my own version called “Die Nebel im Westen” (The mists in the west):


    Never tested, only my thoughts how I would do it.

  21. #291 Ben Robbins says:

    That could work. The biggest shift is in mindset: switching to understanding that you have to make your own decisions rather than wait for the plot to find you, plus judging risk and deciding when to run. I would be more concerned that people who were used to the more traditional campaign wouldn’t make the sharp adjustment if it was the same world.

  22. #290 L.K says:

    My friends and I want to start our own West Marches but they are set on the idea of placing it on our “already enstablished” campaign setting because we have put quite an amount of effort on it and we dont want to throw it out and so that if one of the new players enjoys the setting he can transition from the West Marches to the “Weekly Ongoing Campaign” by traveling “east”. Can ,in your opinion, the West Marches work under these circumstances? or is it better to set them in a new setting and why?

    Thanks in advance

  23. #289 Ben Robbins says:

    There was lots of role-playing and character development in the original West Marches. But that said, you don’t *need* rules to promote role-playing.

  24. #288 Tiago says:

    How much character development centered roleplay did your “West Marches” have? I am thinking about scaling back the simulationist aspects of it ( Hand waving encumbrance and playing with the rules light “World of Dungeons”) and adding some roleplay centered mechanics (Flags from Dungeon World) because I more support for roleplay. Thoughts?

  25. #287 Ben Robbins says:

    @ Max A: Sometimes parties stayed in the wilds for more than one session, but they were of course required to get another game scheduled with the same people and couldn’t join other expeditions (or report their adventures to the group) until they got back.

    One very distant and risky expedition to the Sacred Lakes spanned three sessions, and a bad trip getting captured at the Sunken Fort also went to three, but I don’t think anyone stayed out for four.

  26. #286 Max A says:


    A player recently pointed me to this post, and I’ve been thinking about running a game like this for some time.

    My one big question is, is every single expedition a single session? Is every wandering into the wilderness plus dungeon crawl handled in one day/night of play? Due to logistics, sessions with my current group run a couple of hours, and I imagine it would be hard to have a satisfying mini-adventure with a single group of players in one nights.

  27. #285 ben robbins says:

    @ lonely player: You never know. Usually I keep moving to new and different things.

  28. #284 ben robbins says:

    @ Scholz: Hmm, not sure how adventure planning would work. If all the players are new they have no idea where to go unless you give them the old “treasure map” hook. You could do something weird like draw from a deck to give the players two or three destinations to chose from.

    I think the big issue is adjusting to expectations of danger. Most new players are going to expect a “fair” adventure with nothing but winnable encounters. They don’t expect to have to decide whether to run away. This happened in the original West Marches some too. It worked best when new players played with at least one returning player who could give them the heads-up. A player warning against danger is totally different than the GM doing it. Not sure how to solve that with open pickup groups except to include that warning in your pitch.

    Keep us updated!

  29. #283 Scholz says:

    Rereading this, and pleased to see the comments still active!
    I’m moving to a new city without any established gaming group or friends. There is a good game store with tables and regular game nights. Do you think having a weekly “open table” meetup style game would work for a West Marches style game? It would obviously lack the pre-planning elements, which is big. But, on the other hand, scheduling would not be an issue.
    What sort of design differences would you incorporate?

  30. #282 lonely player says:

    Is West Marches something you’d ever consider running again, or have you moved on from that style of gaming for the foreseeable future?

  31. #281 ben robbins says:

    @ Ed: Yes, parties had to return to town at the end of each session. There were a few cases where we intentionally broke that rule and a party stayed out for a few sessions, which meant those players were locked in to scheduling another session together.

  32. #280 Ed says:

    Sorry if I’ve missed this somewhere, but during the campaign was there a house rule to the effect that the party had to return to town at the end of each game session? I’m just wondering how the ad hoc nature of your sessions would work if the party stayed in the wilderness from session to session. Thanks.

  33. #279 Cartheon says:

    Alright, that sounds similar to what Lord Kilgore did for Restenford, and what I’ve been working on so far. I’ll stick with it then. Thanks!

  34. #278 ben robbins says:

    I definitely used topography but only on the broad scale, not down to every inch. I always thought in terms of elevation because that worked for me for visualizing how the different terrains clicked together — how rivers flowed down from the mountains, why all of Cradle Wood was on a sharp incline, why there was a lake hidden in the middle of Pike Hollow, etc.

  35. #277 Cartheon says:

    I’ve been working on the map for my game, but I can wavering between two styles I’m thinking of using.

    On the one hand there is the option to map out the exact topography like Lord Kilgore did for the Bone Hill module centered around Restenford: http://www.lordkilgore.com/restenford-area. This will give me a lot of granularity when letting players know the geography – “The summit of the nearest hill is two miles away to the north and covered with a copse of trees. To your south is a steep valley with the slope beginning half a mile from your current position…” However, this is going to require a great deal of work, mapping the contours of every slope.

    The other option is to keep it somewhat vague with each area having a stated geography but no specifics, similar to Louisville D&D’s (another West Marches-ish game) player map: http://louisvillednd.com/wiki/index.php?title=Player%27s_Map. This has the benefit of not needing near as much work to map out the detail, but I lose the capability of giving unchanging geographic features.

    Anyways, I was curious how detailed your map was. Did your master map just have a general lay of the land with notable features marked, or did you work out the exact topography?

  36. #276 ben robbins says:

    @Paul: It’s a pretty universal question about encounters. Most RPGs have their own systems for handling it, but the age-old rule is to determine 1) how far apart the two parties are, and 2) who spots who first.

    Once you know those two things — plus the nature of the creatures involved — the situation starts to write itself. When in doubt, be neutral and true to the world, as always. Owlbears behave like owlbears, goblins behave like goblins, etc. But no, none of that was in the tables.

  37. #275 Paul says:

    Hi Ben, just found your series on the West Marches – thanks for sharing, this is really interesting stuff! How much effort did you put into the random encounters tables, from the perspective of making the encounter more interesting than “you come across an owlbear, roll for initiative”? It seems to me that part of the fun of this environment is in the exploration and the adversity that comes getting from Point A to Point B, but doesn’t that come with a ton of setup and prep work? Or are you just good at thinking on your feet that way? I’m trying to figure out a way to minimize the really granular level prep-work but still keep things fresh and interesting… in the owlbear example, rolling for an owlbear on the random encounter table could be that you find owlbear tracks (do you want to follow them), or that you come across an owlbear nest (she’ll fight to the death but won’t chase), or that a hungry owlbear is stalking the party (something is following you), or a number of other possibilities. Did you prepare a handful of different ways to encounter each monster on the random table, or just make it up at the moment?

  38. #274 am_ says:

    Hi, Ben.
    Now, in my own small town Yekaterinburg (Urals, Russia) I’m running my own Westmashes-like game (“East lands”, actually).
    Our webpage is http://eastlands.pnprpg.ru

    Thank you for your Westmarshes and this posts about it.

  39. #273 ben robbins says:

    @Cartheon: 100 square miles was a pretty normal region, though some were smaller and some were much larger. Plus some large regions contained sub-regions, and so on.

    Settings that have “minecraft” design (forest to plains to desert to plains to tundra in the span of 2 miles) destroy my suspension of disbelief.

    Yeah, me too. Just put terrain next to terrain that would actually be adjacent in the real world (marshes next to forest and hills, etc). Leave out the sudden climate changes.

    For a player-driven game to work, the environment has to make sense. Otherwise players can’t make logical decisions.

  40. #272 Cartheon says:

    I have been inspired by these posts and am considering running a West Marches style campaign. I am having trouble with developing a map, though.

    As you never posted the player’s map or your own map, I am sort of lost, using only your advice and descriptions. However, from that it sounds like you made areas that are only five or so miles in size. Settings that have “minecraft” design (forest to plains to desert to plains to tundra in the span of 2 miles) destroy my suspension of disbelief. How big were the areas in your campaign and did it have a “minecraft” design? If that is the case, I’ll go with a more traditional 6-mile per hex hexcrawl.

  41. #271 Frost says:

    @ Ed: I think it worked pretty much as you would expect. If we (the players) had heard about a place before finding it (someone says that there’s a small forest in the north called Centaur Grove) then that’s what we’d call it. If we just found something we’d name it something or maybe just refer to it by description “those ruins out by the lake in the north”. If we then discovered a better name from it from exploring or something then we’d start calling it that; or keep calling it by our name if we liked that better.

    I’m pretty sure that there’s things that we named and never found out the actual name. And I’m also sure that Ben has a ‘true’ name for those things, we just never discovered it.

  42. #270 Ed says:

    Out of curiosity, if players were the first to discover a location, such as the Horned Tower, did the players name the location? Or did they discover the location’s ‘true’ name while exploring it? Was it ever the case that you gave a location one name (for your records) but the players called it something else after they’d discovered it? Thanks.

  43. #269 ben robbins says:

    Frost said:

    Really though I think all of that boils down to this: We never expected things in the game to be “fair” (i.e. “level appropriate”) – we expected them to make sense and fit into the game world. It was our job as players to make sure the encounters were level appropriate.

    Yep, that’s it.

  44. #268 Frost says:

    I feel like I should chime in here, being the PC who died in the “second Hydra” incident that Ben mentioned. In that case I felt that it was pretty obvious, even while it was happening, that we (me especially) had rushed in foolishly (“hooray, we killed the hydra!! Let’s rush into its lair and search for treasure!”), were getting caught with our pants down, and needed to run like mad (which we immediately tried to do). It was probably the least telegraphed big danger I can remember, but nobody felt that it was ‘unfair’.

    Thinking about what made me not get upset with Ben when I died and accuse him of unfairness or somesuch:

    1) It made sense and was reasonable in the circumstances; even if there was crucial info that we didn’t know when we rushed into the cave.
    That is, it didn’t really seem likely that there was a second Hydra hiding in the cave nearby during the fight with the first one, but as we entered the cave it was pretty obvious there was something more going on, even before the other Hydra appeared. When the hydra did appear that made it very clear what was going on and _it made sense_ even if there was no way I would have guessed that that would be what was going on before that. And anyway I should have been much more paranoid about going into any cave like that.

    2) Lots of little things reinforcing the feeling that Ben was an impartial/passive arbiter, e.g. the GM rolling all the dice out in the open. All of the “West Marches” style of play helps reinforce this (players deciding where to go on their own and so forth), but there’s also things the GM can do during the game to emphasize their impartiality.

    3) Lots of precedence for things being potentially very dangerous, often surprising, and not tuned for your current level .
    For example a very early bit in a game involved a 1st level character crawling into a barrow mound that the group had come across on their way to somewhere else, to do a little grave robbing. Sure enough there were a couple of Barrow Wights – definitely not a 1st level encounter. It was pretty obvious what was happening and the PCs fled immediately. That sort of thing (with the players & PCs retelling it to others) made sure that we all knew very well that there were scary things in that dark hole or on the other side of the door (heck folks were even scared of the doors themselves). I remember most of us veterans making sure to explain to new players that this was a very different play style so that they would get that from the beginning. I think with everyone feeling that the world was generally a very dangerous place that was not tuned for their level at all, we were all generally very aware of the risks we were taking. Of course despite that we would still frequently do “a little light exploring” just before camping for the night or heading home; because that’s where the fun was.

    I’m not even sure that clues or signs that dangerous things are up ahead is important for this. If things make sense and are consistent then that should usually provide the clues the players need, and as the GM you should make sure to think about those things (“given that there’s a hydra in this area what would that mean…”). But they should also know that sometimes there are surprises.

    Really though I think all of that boils down to this: We never expected things in the game to be “fair” (i.e. “level appropriate”) – we expected them to make sense and fit into the game world. It was our job as players to make sure the encounters were level appropriate.

  45. #267 ben robbins says:

    In West Marches there was an running joke about “a little light exploring.” That was a code word for “well we’re low on hit points and spells, but rather than rest like we should let’s push on and explore a little more territory because what could go wrong?” It was the players joking to themselves that they were about to do something potentially stupid and get themselves killed. They key was that they knew they were being unwise so could hardly be grumpy when they got in over their weary heads.

    The short answer is no. Not that I can remember anyway. The hydra is probably the closest (by which I mean the second hydra) but in hindsight the players were smacking themselves in the heads and wishing they’d put up defensive spells before walking into the scary cave lair.

    A very valuable skill (possibly the most valuable skill) is knowing when it’s time to run away. Very, very fast. Including creatures that pursue is actually a far more dangerous design decision than simply making dangerous creatures that players could flee. In West Marches the goblins of Cradle Wood were generally recognized as being far more dangerous than their stats indicated because they did mob-up and chase intruders, often for days on end. The other epic example would be the Brood of the Standing Stones. They led to one of the most nailbiting sessions in the entire campaign because killing one put a blood curse on the slayer that drew vengeful Brood from miles around. Nightmare.

    I think it’s also very useful to mentally review your own GMing. When you look back on things from the players’ point of view clues that seemed obvious to you might have other interpretations. When you get into the zone of thinking “oh clearly they should have seen the signs!” you are in danger of potentially punishing what you perceive as bad tactical decisions. I’ve caught myself doing that.

    If a particular player is repeatedly grousing about the injustice of the world a West Marches game might not be for them.

    But yeah, sometimes you step into more than you bargained for. Sometimes there’s no way you could have known to avoid it. That’s life. Run.

  46. #266 TheHydraDM says:

    I do have one more quick question; can’t quite fit it on twitter so I figured I’d ask here.

    During my time running West Marches (~70 games over the course of ~10 months sometime last year or so) I caught flak a few times from players who believed I had created something unfair – commonly that it was too powerful. Of course these were baseless claims – the things I had made were basically by-the-book level appropriate and the fact that the PCs had died was their own fault for ignoring obvious foreshadowing of the dangers ahead (like being basically out of HP and literally announcing aloud that they were going to press on to find the big bad ghost in charge of all the less-bad little ghosts… yeah… not a smart move, that).

    This got me wondering, though, if appearing passive didn’t really help me in avoiding the blame for players being stupid and getting themselves killed, how did it go on your end? Was there ever a time where somebody called shenanigans on something you had created that they had unwittingly stumbled into? Did you ever take the blame instead of the world because, ultimately, you were the creator of the world? Why do you think this kind of thing might happen?

  47. #265 ben robbins says:

    @TheHydraDM: Ability scores were rolled straight but with swapping one pair. It became clear that lucky rollers had an unfair advantage so after a while I instituted an XP bonus based on how low your scores were. Weaker ability score characters got more XP.

    Encumbrance etc were straight by the book (D&D 3e). There was a ton of overland travel and forced marching so it mattered a lot. People were constantly taking subdual damage. It was great to have other attrition meters instead of just HP (same with ability score damage).

  48. #264 TheHydraDM says:

    Hey Ben, with the work I’ve recently been doing on West Marches I have a question (which I posed on twitter but you rightly suggested would be better recorded here):

    Did you generate characters with point buy or with dice rolls? Or both? I could see it working either way with the theme of the campaign (point buy is more gamist, dice rolls are more simulationist, and WM mostly supports both per the articles), but I was curious about the way you did it.

    Bonus question: how did you manage encumbrance and equipment? Was it very by the book D&D or was there any sort of unique approach to reduce time spent managing your inventory?

  49. #263 Ascalaphus says:

    WM sounds like a lot of fun. I’m currently setting up something like it myself, this long tale’s been quite informative in doing so. I’m using Pathfinder. There’s a couple of things I wonder about how to handle;

    1) navigation; the DCs for the survival checks aren’t really all that high. How do you handle that? What sort of actions do people roll them for?

    2) PCs that start at levels above 1; do they get some sort of Wealth By Level?

    3) Magic items: was creating magic items with feats ever an option?

  50. #262 Sajber says:

    Finally, FINALLY, after about a year in the back of my mind, a West March of my (our) very own is about to go down. Wooo! I’ve read and re-read all this at least two times (although the last time was a few weeks back) and come up with some things of my own as well. I do, however, have a few things I’d love to get your thoughts on…

    First of all is the issue of more than one GM. There are three of us that are going to be GMing, which was the idea even before we locked onto the WM-concept as the next step for the group. I thought a bit about having all three of us GM the same world, but I don’t think that’d be very fun for the three of us, as we’d 1) have to do everything together, and 2) we’d know everything, all the time, which might be very boring. I’ve also thought about having three separate world, one each, all adhering to the same rules (ie. treasure tables, survival checks, etc.), and this is what we’re leaning towards at the moment. We thought about having one West March, a South March and a North March, so to speak. A little more problematic part would be the lore of the world… Do you have any other ideas or modifications on those two I’ve mentioned that could make multiple GMs work in a WM campaign?

    Another question has to do with booking a session and the logistics. What we’re thinking about now is doing it all over a Facebook Group. Anybody would first check with a GM on a date they want to play, and then post that date to the group once they got the OK from the GM. But how do you decide who gets to go in those cases where more than 4 (which we think would be the ideal group number) show interest? First-come first-served seems a bit weak, seeing as it’d just be who logs in to Facebook the most. How did you guys do it, did you even have this problem?

    Lastly (for now!), about naming stuff and previous cultures. Did every zone/place have a name that the GM came up with, or was it purely from the players that the names came? How would that work with possible library-searching or asking the local priest in town about those ruins that looked like a church down in zone X? I can sort of see that places having a name makes sense on the original map the players but (just the closest zones, maybe?) but what about subsequent zones and places inside them?

    Thanks in advance!

  51. #261 ben robbins says:

    @ Surgo: That disparity was entirely part of the design. If you look through the early comments you’ll see it’s discussed. Play a bunch you get ahead, don’t play and you fall behind.

  52. #260 Surgo says:

    How do you give out XP rewards and/or deal with level disparity between players? If people start to diverge, I could imagine that could cause some issues.

  53. #259 hangarflying says:

    That mass sense. Thanks!

  54. #258 ben robbins says:

    @ hangarflying: GM decides on a case-by-case basis, usually as part of the email discussion planning the session. If there’s no overlap, like in the case you described, group B would be playing in the same time group A already played, so long as they plan on going somewhere different (so there’s no chance that the events in either game would interact).

    I also required characters to take some downtime between sorties, just because that’s human nature: if you are out risking your life for a week, spending a couple of days resting in town is reasonable (players forget their characters need rest). That also staggered sorties.

    Sometimes I would advance the clock just because we needed to move on. If you hadn’t played, you lost the chance to adventure during that time. “Time waits for no lazy PC.”

  55. #257 hangarflying says:

    The one thing I don’t understand is the advancement of the in-game calendar.

    For example, during the first session, you meet with four players and the adventure for an in-game period of two weeks before returning to town.

    During the next gaming session, you meet with four different players; has the in-game calendar advanced for them as well, or do you set the calendar date of the second group to be the same day (or perhaps a few days later) as the first group?


  56. #256 Adam says:

    I am wondering if the players only had an optional upkeep, and magical treasure was relatively rare, I also assume they could not whatever magical items they liked in town. What could they spend their money on besides these taxes? Doesn’t this system devalue gold and give casters an even greater advantage over fighters than before?

  57. […] West Marches: Running Your Own – […]

  58. #254 ben robbins says:

    I generally put the dice in the player’s hands. Make a Wilderness Lore check, 15 means you keep even, 20 or more means you’ve given them the slip, etc. But yeah, deciding those DCs is arbitrary but informed by the situation. Some chases were short, some were drawn out over days of cat-and-mouse with a variety of checks (you elude them but you’re still in their territory so they’re prowling the area for intruders, roll Hide, roll to cover tracks, roll to detect if they’re near).

  59. #253 TheHydraDM says:

    I suppose my question was more did you sort of adjudicate it by ear (“I think this thing would chase them with reasonable success up until they get to here and then it would give up” or “I think this thing will catch them over the next two hundred feet because it’s faster than them and not wounded”) or were there discrete mechanics you utilized (“Well it’s faster, so that gives it a +2, and it’s willing to chase them forever, so that’s another +2…”)? I ask because I sort of can’t help feeling that adjudicating it by feel is too arbitrary, but at the same time if I try to set up something that uses dice it inevitably gets very complicated by virtue of the plethora of factors you talk about.

    Did you pick one way or the other, or did you find a happy medium? If it was mechanical what sorts of mechanics were involved? I know you haven’t been too big on handing out “here’s exactly how I did it complete with an example” for a lot of elements, but I’ve been after a good way to handle the heroes running away from monsters (and determining the success or lack thereof) for really as long as I’ve been playing traditional GM’d RPGs, be it full of mechanical elements or else simply a reassurance that using my best judgment is the way to do it.

  60. #252 ben robbins says:

    There are so many different variables. Speed is one, but more important are motivation and territory. Is the creature the kind of thing that has a reason to chase? Does it clearly have an advantage? Is it unwounded? Is it chasing within its turf or crossing into unfamiliar terrain?

    Creatures that would leave their own territory were potentially terrifying. In West Marches, goblins and wolves would chase you all day long in Cradle Wood, and probably into the Moors, but if you crossed the pass or went into different terrain they were drastically less likely to follow. But the game where PCs tangled with the Brood at the Standind Stones and then got stalked all the way back to the very gates of town was nerve-wracking. It remains one of the legendary retreats.

  61. #251 TheHydraDM says:

    Hey, HydraDM from twitter here. I had a question: you mention running away was a key aspect of this campaign, as was maintaining a simulation-type feel. Try as I might, though, I cannot for the life of me find or figure out a way to simulate running that isn’t ridiculously overwrought and bulky.

    I did have some thoughts so far (such as how speed should be a factor, but not the only factor – Spirit of the Century has chase rules making mention of how most chases aren’t decided by speed and I pretty much agree with that), but I was wondering how you handled it? No need to reinvent the wheel if I don’t have to, you know?

  62. #250 ben robbins says:

    Is there such a thing as too *many* players? It looks like that may happen with my upcoming game.

    Congratulations and beware..!!!

    Yes, definitely. It’s supply and demand: if there are too many players you’ll have a harder time running enough games to let everyone play as much as they want. It totally depends on how often your average player wants to play versus how much you can GM. And if you let too many people play in one session, no one has fun (or everybody has less fun). We had a few eight or nine player games and they were pretty chaotic, so I capped party size unless there was some really good reason.

    Think of how often you’re willing to run games. Say it’s once a week. If you’re willing to have an average of five players per game, you can accomodate 5 players in your pool if they all want to play every week, 10 if on average they’re happy to play every other week, and so on.

    In other words, the GM has to be willing to play (player pool / 5) times more often than the average player does. Of course a teeny bit of over-demand is not so bad. Keeps the competitive spirit. But too much can lead to serious bad blood.

    I had a waiting list to join for a lot of the campaign. There’s always the urge to bring in more people and share the fun, but sharing too much waters down the fun.

  63. #249 Ashley says:

    Is there such a thing as too *many* players? It looks like that may happen with my upcoming game.

  64. #248 Ynas Midgard says:

    If I had many players, I would definitely run a campaign like this. Unfortunately, I don’t even have enough players for regular gaming.

  65. #247 Jason says:


    Great system. My dad raised me on 1st edition D&D as an ‘interactive storytelling’ from the age of 3. As I grew older I was able to participate in his real sessions which can only be described as open sandbox with a lethal reality. To this day I still prefer this style to all others.

    I’m contemplating a ‘West Marches’ style and was wondering if you could pass along your large map as well as the contract you had all of the players agree to. I love the idea of a fractal map and have recently begun to use the ‘Fractal Mapper’ software to build my map for the setting.

    I’ve had the pleasure of looking over a copy of the Microscope game. Have you thought of using that system to develop the campaign setting background for a setting they would later roleplay in? Great free-form system.

    A fellow roller of the die,

  66. #246 ben robbins says:

    @ OJW: cookie accepted!

    @ Mike: I made the maps in Illustrator, but during games I had paper printouts and just drew a line to plot the course the party was taking each hour of the day. So I always knew exactly where they were even if they didn’t. Make a little dot when they camp, put a date beside it if you want, then draw another line as they start marching the next day.

  67. #245 Mike says:

    Thanks again for writing this all up! I am hoping to kick off a west marches style game this weekend.

    You said you used “just an open terrain map where I drew vectors to keep track of where the party was” and “I didn’t use hex maps, just free movement and distances”. It seems like you also mentioned zooming in and out.

    Did you use vector mapping software, or was this just plotting vectors on a gridless paper map? If you used software, what did you use?

  68. #244 Outlaw Josey Wales says:

    First of all, a homemade, chocolate chip cookie to Ben for not only writing this up but also for continuing to answer comment questions years after the fact. A big pat on the back to everyone that contributed to ideas and posted links to their similar campaigns. That helps me out alot mainly because….

    I have only run 2 campaigns so far so I am a fledgling GM. Vampire the Masquerade and now Pathfinder…Both were prepublished modules (NY by Night and _I still can’t believe they talked me into this_ The World’s Largest Dungeon). That 2nd one is the price I pay for being the most knowledgeable player of the group after our previous GM’s left for one reason or another. If you want to play, someone has to run it

    I think I may try to steer my group towards this Western Marches/sandbox style as it is the style of play I am most used to. I first got into RPGs many years ago and had more fun playing in these style games than following plotlines and over-arcing stories.

    I have read through the pages plus all of the comments on each of the pages and put together a good listed of tips and things to look out for. Especially since I only have a 3 player pool right now. But if they pass along the word to others, maybe (hopefully) it will grow. My planning begins tomorrow…

  69. #243 Bosh says:

    I just came across this and it resembles (in some ways) a game I played until for a while. We did that one in 1ed with the vast majority of XP coming from treasure and not from monsters, which changes the dynamic a lot. I wonder how much of the dynamic in your campaign came from XP coming mostly from killing monsters and how much it would change if monsters give a pittance of XP and getting gold is where XP comes from.

  70. #242 Adam Meyers says:

    I’m so glad I found this, the game I’m running is a mixture of this and a normal campaign, and the tips here will help. One large campaign world with a West Marches feel to it, where it could either go story-driven or sandbox depending on what the players choose. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to end up, but I’m excited to give it a try and see where the players decide to go with it, so I might just be back asking for tips.

  71. #241 J.New says:

    Oops, *Michael Pfaff, sorry typo!

  72. #240 J.New says:

    Hey, I know this is a bit of a ressucitation of the comments, but it looks like you guys were still responding a month or two ago so I thought I’d go ahead and ask my question.

    I’m trying to work out how to run a West Marches game in 4th edition (that’s not really important, but I’d like to give a big shoutout to the other 4e west marches guy, Michael Pfaf, for his great blog helping me out). The biggest hole I’ve noticed in the gameplay for attracting players is specifically centered around the kind of play archetype that would appeal to somebody who would like to play, say, a Bard. They want there to be more “stuff” out there than just wilderness, and like, wars going on, or other citystates to visit to influence the politics or something like that.

    What are some ways you can run a game that avoids being “urban” but still appeals to their sensibility of wanting to make a prolonged impact on the world? They want to build it, shape it, mold it… not just discover it. And there’s not a lot of opportunity to achieve that out there on the West Marches, at least I can’t find it. Any ideas? Am I sniffing up the wrong tree altogether?

  73. #239 SavevsFail says:

    @Ikeren That sounds like a great idea, I’d be all over a forum like that.

    I have chatted to @chicagowiz a couple times asking him for advice and bouncing ideas off him. A big pool of folks running and playing in sandbox style games could be really cool.

  74. #238 Ikeren says:

    Ah; I missed it; I only read through the comments of this thread. Thanks for the response.

    Truth be told, I was thinking it might be fun to do a West Marches campaign development forums; where people DMing this style of campaign can pass around maps, regions, ideas and descriptions of how their games went.

  75. #236 Ikeren says:

    Good call. Follow up question: Numerous people have asked for you to post encounter charts, maps, or even entire region guides. I have some 5-7 page region guides written up, including several small specific locations, a couple dungeons, and random encounter charts, and maps.

    I don’t think I ever saw in the 235 comments I read you responding to that request; which I found a little odd, given how impressively you responded to other questions. Do you wish to refrain from putting your material out there in fear that it will stifle creativity, or because you hope to be published in the future, or you worry people will find it boring?

  76. #235 ben robbins says:

    @Ikeren: Some regions had a lot of creatures, some were pretty quiet / barren. It all depended on the concept. Very few West Marches regions had a single creature type, but when it made sense to me, that’s what I did (Hydra Canyons, I’m looking at you).

    Let logic and style guide you. Once I decided on the theme of a region (and the encounter level), I just put in what made sense to me. Don’t add in things that don’t make sense just to add variety. Your job isn’t to make each region exciting and challenging, it’s to make them feel real and distinct.

    Think of how the critters in a region interact. Do stirges feed on the kobolds? Do kobolds hunt lizards for food or hide from them? I’m not saying you need a full-blown ecology, but it helps to take different encounters on your wandering monster table and imagine what would happen if they ran into each other (sans adventurers). Those critters would bump into each other all the time. They live there.

    Remember, if the players get bored with kobolds, they’ll just go somewhere else. That’s their prerogative. They go look for what’s interesting, the regions don’t adapt to entertain them.

  77. #234 Ikeren says:

    Hiya all. I’m working on a westmarches game that is going to run on a Play by Post website (DNDonlinegames). I’ve read through all the comments and am having tonnes of fun writing up the areas, entirely disconcerned with any sort of “balance.” The mix of writing historys, encounters, dungeons, cool terrain, and encounter tables seems to suit me surprisingly well.

    The biggest challenge I’ve come up with is finding maps. I’m ending up cobbling a bunch of random maps together; which I can articulate represents that they’ll be getting fragments of maps from different cartographers, and that they could work on a personal map if they wished.

    My remaining question is: How consistent were your areas? My first area, for example; has between 2 and 4 kobold caves (small dungeons featuring kobolds and traps), since the area is home to a lot of kobold tribes. I was wondering if your players found this boring and you subsequently had to vary encounters massively; or if players only did fractions of things? Like I guess it would make sense that the party would not stumble across all the

    For example, your centaur woods; was it just a tribe of centaurs, a few traps? Did the players get bored of numerous centaur encounters? Or did you mix it up lots — centaurs + wolves + some other animals + some fey?

    Anyways, thanks for the cool blog. I’ve been having fun reading it, and through the comments.

  78. #233 John says:

    Excellent series, Ben. I’ve been percolating ideas for such a setting since I first read it about a year ago, but am just now starting to actually build the world and encounter tables. I’m curious mainly about distances and timescales; about how big was an average-sized region in the Western Marches, in terms of square miles or days’ march or whatever relevant unit? Likewise, about how large were the Marches as a whole?

  79. #232 ben robbins says:

    Link away, Andy!

  80. #231 Andy says:

    Sorry to necro this post, but I read it and created my own sandbox and I couldn’t be happier.
    I would love to link or repost this on my site for my readers to enjoy also.

  81. #230 Iron Sky says:

    I just started up a 4e West Marches style game tonight. I only had two players for the first session, but it was still fun. I think for 4e, parties are for more capable of surviving on their own for extended periods of time, so I did several things to make town more appealing and 4e more compatible with this style of play:

    *PCs only get 1 healing surge per extended rest in the wilderness but all of them back while at town.
    *The area where the party is exploring has two active volcanoes, filling the area with ash clouds(handily reducing visibility to no more than a couple miles). Each day I’d roll to see which was erupting and if both were, the PCs had to make a save or get Fuming Lung, a disease that rapidly saps their combat abilities and to which they get an Endurance/Heal bonus to recover from while at town.
    *Used inherent bonuses so I could ignore magical items and make them special and unique again.

    They started in a small military outpost that also had a ramshackle tavern-tent, run by an entrepreneurial dwarf who had a thing for maps and stories and who was willing to trade room and board for additions to his (nearly empty) map of the region or interesting stories and discovered that the Legion would also pay small bounties for useful information about the region (but only if they didn’t give it to the tavern-keeper too!)

    They headed out, got caught in a rockslide while camping, rolled a terrible nature check that made them think they’d gone 15 miles when they’d only gone 10 (wreaking havoc on their map), then ran into a level 5 monster while in a level 1 zone since they were close to the border of a level 5 area. They killed it, then wisely avoided the area, backtracking through the “Windy Forest” as they named it and discovering a burnt wooden henge with a crazy kobold carrying a snake staff guarding it.

    He seemed to get agitated when they came close to the henge, so they left him some food and made a note to come back with an interpreter (or more food to bribe it). Then they reached the forest of huge 10-15 foot tall ferns leaking mind-altering spores and fled, making their way back to town.

    Unfortunately, they ran out of food and money, so one of them did free labor for the Imperial Legion that was building the outpost they are operating out of (increasing his Faction with them, though I don’t know if he knows that) while the other treated Fuming Lung patients (and fighting to survive his own case of Fuming Lung) for a pittance of gold so they could afford more food (prices are marked up 5x – at least until the outpost gets bigger or the tavern/shopkeeper likes them enough to reduce his prices).

    Then a caravan arrived full of slave-kobolds to labor on the outpost and a new shopkeeper – a gnomish alchemist selling a wide variety of potions. They bought some supplies, collected some fern spores for the alchemist in exchange for a potion to help the cleric with his still-worsening Fuming Lung disease, and prepared to head out. And there we ended.

    The only complaint I might have about the game is my random encounter system randomly produced only 2 encounters out of 70 rolls(10 rolls a day with 10% chance of each creating an encounter). I’m also thinking of making some “locations of note” fixed and others to be placed as encounters to make sure the PCs find the cool stuff I’ve created.

    Thanks for all the ideas, I’m looking forward to running next week’s session(this time with more players hopefully!)

  82. #229 eddie watts says:

    so did you not bother with random encounters of the harmless variety in settled areas?

    mine is based around a city which is safe-ish within 10 miles of the city, patrolled by guards to protect the farmers kinda deal.
    however in this area it is possible for the odd goblin, small group of bandits or an errant wild animal to be encountered. Obviously i want there to be other encounters in the area too and it was those encounters i wanted inspiration for.

    also how many rumours did you make up and were they all related to different quests or were some related to the same quest even if they did not seem to be?

  83. #228 ben robbins says:

    i was just wondering about random encounter tables, how much of these were taken up with non-combat stuff like rock-slides and similar? also in the more settled area say around 5 miles from town what sort of encounters did you have there?

    Different terrain types had different ratios of environmental hazards (for example, swamps have a lot more potential terrain hazards than grasslands). Settled / safe areas should have few or no random encounters, or only harmless things — that’s the definition of settled and safe, right?

  84. #227 eddie watts says:

    i am currently writing up a game like this, based in the world of allansia of fighting fantasy fame.
    have got a lot of stuff pencilled in, but slightly different to yours in that i will be having some adventuring within the town.

    just got to set out some of this stuff now!

    i was just wondering about random encounter tables, how much of these were taken up with non-combat stuff like rock-slides and similar? also in the more settled area say around 5 miles from town what sort of encounters did you have there?

    i will only have one gaming group sadly, but think the game should still be fun. this is in fact how i used to do all my RP sessions, just dropped that style for some reason.

    i’ve read all the comments on all pages referring to this subject so don’t think you’ve provided ideas for this yet?

  85. #226 ben robbins says:

    The Importance of History in a Fantasy Sandbox

    Absolutely true. West Marches had about four discrete periods of history (five if you get out as far as the Sacred Lakes), going farther and farther back in time. When I put anything on the map, knowing where it came from in history helped immensely. Of course I didn’t tell the players any of this, but they started to figure out it, because that was their job…

  86. #225 ben robbins says:

    I would say that the thing that I varied from your original implementation, which has been a key to keeping it going two years, is allowing an open door to new players. That’s not to say you weren’t open to it, but I got the impression when I read your posts a couple of years ago that this was a tight-knit group of friends.

    Actually quite the opposite: most of the players met through West Marches, then became close friends (or bitter enemies). It only started with three players, and kept growing as it went along.

    And no, West Marches wasn’t designed to end, just at some point that became the best idea ;)

  87. #224 ChicagoWiz says:

    Unfortunately, Blogger ate my homework (and my post) so I reposted it today. (1/12/2011) My apologies.

    I would say that the thing that I varied from your original implementation, which has been a key to keeping it going two years, is allowing an open door to new players. That’s not to say you weren’t open to it, but I got the impression when I read your posts a couple of years ago that this was a tight-knit group of friends. For me, keeping a steady influx of new players has been key. I have about 5 people I consider “original players” (joined within the first 3 to 6 months) and 3 of them are core players in where they show up more games than not. The other 5 core players started playing during year 2. I’ve had 3 people that I’ve not invited back due to social/group/campaign issues. 6 players just stopped playing due to life changes (2 have come back from time to time) and I’ve had probably another 5 to 7 people who’ve played once or twice. I’ve got 4 new players coming tomorrow and the possibility of 2 to 3 new players in the next 4 weeks.

    I guess I’ve moved from using West Marches as a strict inspiration to combining your vision with looking at Dave Arneson’s, Gary Gygax’s, Rob Conley’s, MAR Barker’s campaigns for inspiration as well… they never intended those to “end” as much as continually grow and adjust the world to how the players moved things. To that end, keeping the players focused on exploration and “what’s out there” keeps them discovering the things that I’ve had there since day 1, without me having to drive a plot to get them there. I want this to run long term and open-ended.

  88. #223 ben robbins says:

    Congratulations Michael! And yes, ebbs & flows is pretty much exactly how it is. You have to ride the wave, and sometimes the wave rides you for a bit.

    [edited your comment to include the link you wanted]

  89. #222 Chgowiz says:


    I’m coming up on two years on my West Marches implementation and I wrote a blog post summarizing it. If you don’t mind, I’ll point you to the 1/11/2011 post on my blog (WP thinks I’m a spambot if I include the link) for a more detailed discussion.

    TL;DR summary – it’s possible to keep a campaign of West Marches style going for this long, but there are natural ebbs/flows. The campaign world has to be compelling to bring/keep people into, along with a DM dedicated to keeping it going.

    Kindest regards,

  90. #221 SavevsFail says:

    I’ve been running a small sandbox game, started out using Fantasy Craft rules, but those have proved a bit too crunchy for my group and have recently switched to Castles and Crusades which I dig the hell out of.

    The problem I have been running into (aside from players not liking that characters die…) is that the overland travel/exploration feels… not very explore-ey and very book keeping heavy.

    Essentially what Ihave been doing is whenever the party decides to start traveling they tell me a direction and a time period, then whoever their designeted guide is makes a skill check and depending on the DC they either head the intended direction , or are off by a set ammount and head in that direction for the alotted time, then they can check again. If they think they are lost, they can stop and re-roll for direction at any point, or stop and search their surrounding area etc…

    It just feels very clunky. I guess what I’m asking is, Ben, how did you resolve the overland travel specifically?

    Cheers folks!

  91. #220 ben robbins says:

    @ DemoThesaurus

    Finally, it’s hard to not flesh out NPCs and fill their portrayals with quirks and story angles. I guess I just love coming up with NPC personalities too much.

    Flesh out NPCs as much as you want! They’re a valid part of the world. Just don’t make them the plot, or the primary source of the plot. It’s a slippery slope.

    PCs in West Marches had complicated relationships with a bunch of different NPCs in town. There were people they liked and people they hated — and another PC probably felt the opposite way about those exact same NPCs (Father Billorkin, I’m looking at you). Most of the time it had no impact on their adventures (until you were trying to get healed). It was just part of roleplaying.

  92. #219 DemoThesaurus says:

    Ever since finding this blog a few months back and reading about the West Marches style game, I’ve been toying with the notion of running my own and I finally started the machine this past Saturday. I drew a fairly extensive map and printed out a number of the One Page Dungeon Contest entries. I wrote up encounter tables for the nearest regions and dubbed my land Arcitropia, a.k.a. the New World to the colonists who’ve settled there. I had four players show up out of an anticipated six (seven total interested persons). It went pretty well, but there were a few hiccups.

    It was hard for me to know when to stop building the map and settle down on making things interconnected, at least in the pre-planning stage. Traditionally, I’m someone who does a lot more improvising as a GM. This setup made me not want to cheat the players by making up treasure found on the spot and the like. And yet I had to do that when the Old Drunk’s Cabin turned from a limited information gathering spot (my conception) and into an assassination / murder / looting scene by the players. Cue me quickly coming up with coinage, personal items, and links to other sites on the map that I had not foreseen having to create beforehand.

    And yet this came about partially due to my own contribution since the party’s rogue asked a town NPC whether there were any jobs of the nefarious kind available (he’s an aspiring assassin). I went ahead and threw him a bone figuring it would be akin to the wanted posters angle and because, and this is the craziest part, we had just finished roleplaying out a half hour / 45 minute long day laborers scene (gardening, painting a house, etc.) that the players willingly entered into in order to earn some money! I threw this out as a gag to satirize the played-out “mysterious cloaked man offers PCs a gig in the tavern” scene, figuring the guys would chuckle and then head out into the wild yonder. Nope. Not that it wasn’t fun, I just forgot how atypical my players can be.

    Finally, it’s hard to not flesh out NPCs and fill their portrayals with quirks and story angles. I guess I just love coming up with NPC personalities too much. In general though, I’m liking this approach and we’ll see how far we deviate from the template.

  93. #218 SavevsFail says:


    The hex based campaign on The Welsh Piper site has some really solid world generation tables that you could re-purpose/modify into a random feature table.


    Personally, I just generated my own based off of a few things, it’s been a pain in the arse, but I think I’m about 2 weeks from kicking off a Fantasy Craft sandbox game. Just waiting on players to finish generating characters.

  94. #217 cr0m says:

    @213: one thing I’m on the lookout for is random terrain/features tables. I’ve heard they exist, and with a little human judgement (no towers popping up a few yards from the PCs) they can generate decent maps on the fly. For me this would way more interesting than my own ideas–I love surprises. You could even have them organized by difficulty. A 00 in an easy area is quicksand, but in Mordor it’s a lava floe.

    If any one knows of a published terrain generator please let me know!

  95. #216 Thiles Targon says:

    I must say this sounds like a great idea, like many of the things on your blog. I would just like to express my appreciation for your blog, and the fact that you are still answering questions on a 2.5 year old post.

  96. #215 mandra says:

    Thanks for pointing me to those – I must have read them at some point, but the discussion is quite long by now. I’ve grabbed a book about cartography, and I’ll try to do something in Inkscape, which should be able to handle that varying level of detail (perhaps with layers, even). Anyway, it’s inspiring to read about your project. Hope mine will take off as well (… as soon as there is a map, there’s adventure to be had!)

  97. #214 ben robbins says:

    @ mandra, re scale:



    Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend having stationary, permanent landmarks on the wandering monster table. Theoretically those things should be where they are for a reason.

  98. #213 mandra says:

    I understand that you don’t want to publish your maps, but cartography is actually the most difficult part for me to translate into my own campaign. It seems to me that a very detailed knowledge of the terrain is necessary for a campaign focussed on exploration, but on the other hand, to much detail will lead to an insurmountable amount of preparation.

    Do you have any advice on the scale of a map? Were you using different maps (a world map, various regional maps) with different scales?

    I am considering adding terrain elements to my random tables (“You stumble upon a cave”, “There’s a small watchtower here”), but I can see that it would lead to problems if, for example, a group follows the path of another group and there wasn’t any watchtower then. Then again, that would be a question of scale (whether the group is merely roughly within the same square kilometer or could actually follow the same track).

  99. #212 ben robbins says:

    @ Kael: Definitely. I’ve always wanted to do a “crashed colony ship / exploring alien world” sandbox.

  100. #211 Kael says:

    Heya, just read teh whole article, and had a fun little idea. Sure, you could always run it with D&D, but i was thinking… Why not make a “West Marches” campaign with D20 Future? Stranded spaceship or newly colonized world ^^

    Definately gives you some fun ways to make “Magic weapons” to be found in treasure rooms

  101. #210 Nathan says:

    I’m with #208, I’m trying to make my own version of this, and I’m trying to understand how best to ‘zone’ out my world into different CR. I know that you have previously said that your map looks like a typical fantasy map, but I would be very much interested in seeing anything (else) that you’re willing to share.

  102. […] Posted on August 6, 2010 by cr0m Ever since I read Ben Robbins’ now famous West Marches blog posts, I dreamed of running a sandbox of my own, but when I tried to imitate Ben’s experience, […]

  103. #208 Michael says:

    I must say, I love this idea…I am considering beginning a similar campaign for some of my friends. However, I’ve got a question–no one in my group seems too enthusiastic about playing D&D, so what other systems might you recommend for a West Marches game?

  104. #207 JJ says:

    Have you ever considered releasing some of the maps and tables? If not, would you?
    I’d love to see them and theoretically cannibalize parts of them as well.

  105. #206 Harlequin says:

    How to do it with superheros? Short answer: go Post-Apoc.

    Long answer: “traditional superheroes” are defenders of post-war peacetime eras, so yes, they’re reactionary. But if “superheroes” are part of a local reconstruction effort making a demilitarized zone safe for humanity again, that could also work. Think “Fallout.” They might also be selfish, enriching themselves only. Either way works if your players are otherwise ordinary folk augmented by powerful, yet modest, superpowers.

  106. #205 Darth Butternutz says:

    That’s a good point, I didn’t even think about it like that. Oh well, if I figure out a way to do it, I’ll post something here :)

  107. #204 ben robbins says:

    It may not be a good fit for traditional superheroes at all, since that genre is primarily reactive (villain does something, we stop it) rather than proactive and exploratory. But if someone figures it out, I’m all ears.

  108. #203 Darth Butternutz says:

    Great idea and I loved reading all of the comments. I was slightly disappointed though because it seems everyone is into starting up fantasy based games and I didn’t see even one mention of a modern Super Hero type game. I grew up playing Heroes Unlimited and I have recently started playing Champions and the Hero System. I was wondering if anyone else has any insight on what would work for either of these two systems in my own West Marches type game.

  109. #202 ben robbins says:

    I’m avoiding the D&D Edition Wars, but one part of 3E that I used heavily in West Marches (and don’t think I ever mentioned) was ability score damage. It was an extremely useful tool for subtle gradations of wear and tear vs progress, something that’s really critical in a trek/exploration game.

    Forced march to get out of owlbear territory? Lose Con. Fever in the Frog Marches? Lose Wisdom. Dripping wet in the Hidden Stair in the dead of winter? Lose Strength.

    You could also score short-term benefits. Gaze in the Moon Pool? Gain Wisdom, if you do it right. Drink the hearty Druidic mead the Keeper of Bees gave you? Gain Con. Drink the strange brew in the mushroom caves? Lose Charisma (because you’re a little nutty and freaking everyone out) but gain Wisdom, at least for a while.

    Ability score damage was pretty much a constant presence — we rarely had a game without it. It was nice because you could lay on very small impairing effects (ooh, stagnant water, Fort save or -1 Dex), so environmental decisions, like having a good wilderness skill to find good water, made a difference, but it wasn’t a save vs poison or die kind of thing.

  110. #201 cr0m says:

    @199 Neil Carr: I can’t speak for Ben, but I can speak for the West Marches inspired Red Box D&D game I’ve been running for the last year+. Simply put: it’s a feature, not a bug.

    PCs who survive are rewarded in lots of ways, and having the pick of the loot is one of them. The only way I can see this as a problem is a social one, where other players are annoyed that Bob’s Fighter has all the cool stuff, while their brand new characters have to struggle along with starter weapons and armor.

    A lot hinges on the system you’re running. In my case, Red Box D&D is highly lethal at low levels, so no amount of treasure and gear is a panacea. But regardless of the system, if you’re following Ben’s advice about danger, it benefits the rich, successful PCs to kit out their poor cousins to increase the party killing power.

    An adventuring company is another great way to put loot and certain items into a communal “battle chest”. In my current game there’s a Staff of Healing that the clerics pass around depending on which players have showed up to game. And a lot more players have started running clerics ever since it was discovered… funny that.

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