Grand Experiments: West Marches (part 4), Death & Danger

As I’ve said before (and any of the players will tell you) West Marches was dangerous by design. Danger encourages teamwork because you have to work together to survive. It also forces players to think: if they make bad decisions they get wiped out, or at least “chased into the swamp like little sissy girls” (one of Karen’s best lines, back in the first days in the kobold caves, and a recurring game quote).

It’s an open secret that every GM fudges sometimes, or glosses over closely checking rolls and just hand waves things. It’s part of the art to do it well and gracefully. No such thing in West Marches: I rolled all dice in the open, not behind the screen. If the dice said you sucked a critical, a critical you did suck.

Did this lead to looming specter of sudden death? Yes, but having strong and fairly unyielding consequences combined with a consistent, logical environment meant the players really could make intelligent decisions that determined their fate — they really did hold their own lives in their hands.

Of course for that to work the sandbox had to be built with internal logic and consistency that the players could decipher…

Danger Gradients: Paths of Exploration

West Marches was intended to be a campaign environment, where characters would start at low level (1st actually) and then push farther and farther out into the wilds as they advanced. When I was creating the game map I marked each region with a specific encounter level (EL) to gauge the kind of threats that were normal there. The logical pattern was a rising gradient of danger: the farther you get from the safety of town, the more dangerous the land became.

In most cases there were no steep changes in encounter level as you moved from region to region: if you were in an EL 3 area, an adjacent region would probably be EL 4 or 5 at most. This makes good game play, but also matches game world logic: the goblins in the mountains don’t magically stay on their side of the fence, some wander into Cradle Wood (the adjacent region) and some even go as far as the Battle Moors (the region beyond that). Distance was generally walking distance not “as the stirge flies”, so the far side of a mountain range might be quite a bit more dangerous since it was effectively “farther” from town.

Mountains, rivers, valleys and similar terrain features divided up the West Marches, creating separate paths of exploration. Players were free to jump around and explore where ever they liked, but there was a tendency to return to previously explored areas just to see what the next region out looked like. So if a party started exploring west into Wil Wood, they would probably push into the Frog Marshes, then the Dwarven Caves, then the Notch Fells, each region harder than the last. But if they explored north into the Moors, they would push into Cradle Wood, Ghost Wood, then the Goblin’s Teeth and so on. Each region also held tidbits that revealed details about the farther regions. By the time you reach the ruins in Harbor Wood you’ve hit lots of clues pointing at their druidic origins.

Multiple exploration paths also meant that a player could level up exploring one direction, die horribly somewhere high level (sorry Mike, two hydras was cruel), and then start a new 1st level character and explore completely different areas. You didn’t have to go back to the same low level areas because there were multiple low level areas (and multiple medium level areas, and multiple high level areas, and so on).

The players never knew I had these potential exploration paths planned out, they just pushed farther and farther into the wilds in whatever direction they started going.

Danger Pockets: Barrow Mounds & Treasure Rooms

Not everything in a region obeyed the overall encounter level — how exciting would that be? Some regions had sharp pockets of danger, like the barrow mounds in the middle of the otherwise pleasant Wil Wood.

By logic those pocket encounter areas had to be either sealed away or isolated somehow, otherwise they would change the EL of the region around them. If the wights stay in their mounds, the rest of the wood is still relatively safe. If the wights go roaming through the forest, Wil Wood should just have a higher EL.

Usually these pockets were either easy to find and well known or hard to find and completely unknown. This kept players from just bumping into extreme danger with no warning — they either knew about the danger spot and could avoid it if they wanted, or didn’t know about it and would only find it with searching, in which case they knew they were unearthing something unusual. If they were smart that would be enough to get them to proceed with caution.

Dungeon design was also a little different than normal. In a traditional game the adventurers sweep through a dungeon and never look back, but as I covered in part 3 the ongoing environment meant every dungeon was a permanent feature. Dungeons generally had the same or near EL as the region they were in (for all the obvious reasons), but to make things interesting I designed many of the dungeons with “treasure rooms” that were harder than the standard EL, well hidden, or just plain impossible to crack. So even when a party could slog through and slaughter everything they met, there was a spot or two they couldn’t clear, whether it was the fearsome Black Door, the ghoul-infested crypts of the ruined monastery, or the perilous Hall of Swords. They usually had to give up and make a strong mental note to come back later when they were higher level.

Lots of times they _never_ came back. They really wanted to, they talked about it all the time, but they never got around to it because they were busy exploring new territory. Rather than being frustrating each new “incomplete” seemed to make players even more interested in the game world.

Was there actually good treasure in the treasure rooms? Yes, really good treasure. Every time the players cracked one it just made them more certain that all those other sealed or well-guarded rooms they couldn’t beat were chock full of goodness.


In Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist (GNS) terms, West Marches was gamist (make bad decisions and you die, roll bad and you die) and heavily simulationist (if you’re in the woods in winter and you have no food you’re in trouble).

An interesting side effect was that West Marches put me (the GM) in a more neutral position. I wasn’t playing any scheming NPCs or clever plots, so I wasn’t portraying intelligent opposition and didn’t have any ulterior motives. The environment was already set, so instead of making up challenges that matched the party I just dutifully reported what they found wherever they went. When I rolled I would freely tell the players what bonuses or target numbers they were up against, so the players looked at the dice to see the result, not me.

In many of the West Marches games it really felt like the PCs versus the world with me as an impartial observer. The players didn’t “see” my hand just the game world, which is about the most any GM can hope for.

Big kudos to Mike, Gavin, Karen, Chris, Dan, Ping, Seth, Jem, Jen, Rob, Russell, Paul, Trey, Zach, Roy, Tommy, Mike M, Charissa, John, and Paul G. I kept trying to kill them and they kept coming back. What more can you ask for in players?

postscript: Running your own West Marches

    Ben Robbins | December 9th, 2007 | , , | show 39 comments