West Marches: Finding the Dungeons

There was a question in the comments about whether a West Marches GM should tell the players where the dungeons are or make them go out and search.

Players having the free will to make decisions–and get themselves into trouble doing “a little light exploring”–is at the very heart of the West Marches charter. But equally essential is the idea that, to make interesting and useful choices, you have to have information to work with. Making decisions totally blind (“you’re in a forest, do you go left or right???”) is not much different than having no choice.

Think of each dungeon as falling into one of three categories of visibility:

  • LANDMARKS: A landmark dungeon is someplace well-known and generally easy to find, like the ruins of a castle on a hillside or a prominent canyon. Anyone nearby can see it, and lots of people know it’s there. It’s name is common knowledge, along with maybe some snippet of history, like who built the castle before it fell to ruins, which may be right or entirely wrong.
  • RUMORED: A rumored dungeon is a place some people have heard of, without knowing exactly where it is or what it’s really like. There’s talk of barrow mounds in the Wil Wood, or caves on the banks of the lake in Pike Hollow. Or the dungeon itself might not be known, but other trouble might point to it: there are goblins all over Cradle Wood, so it seems likely they have a lair there. Adventurers might know vaguely where to look for a rumored dungeon, but they’ve got to go search if they want to find the place.
  • UNKNOWN: The third type is a dungeon that is completely unknown. It might be because it’s a relatively minor location, or some place brand new, or somewhere that is well-hidden and forgotten. A party might find clues that lead them to make a grand discovery, because treasure tells a story, or they might just stumble across it in the wilds.

So when you’re making your West Marches wilderness, you want to start with a few landmark dungeons, some rumored dungeons, and then a bunch of unknowns. That gives players some information to work with, some obvious targets but also a lot of opportunities to explore. Mix this with your layers of history and you’ve got a good framework.

As I’ve said before, if you’ve got players who are totally new to the West Marches idea, start them off with a crude treasure map to get them out of town so they can start looking around and discovering. You want to get the ball rolling. And of course as your parties come back and keep updating their table map at the inn, rumors become known spots, unknowns get discovered, etc.

You can also use this method to categorize how well-known whole regions of the wilderness are. Everyone knows the Frog Marsh is right over there, but adventurers might hear rumors of the Rotting Oaks long before they know where it actually is, and whether the terrible stories are true.

    Ben Robbins | April 24th, 2024 | , | show 2 comments