Sandbox Gaming in a West Marches Campaign

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Do you yearn to discover secrets lost in the mists of time? Would you delight in exploring the vast wilderness, uncaring of fortune or ruin? Shall your prime years be spent existing in a dusty town or adventuring across the wide world?

In a West Marches game, towns are boring – you only visit them to shop or have a stein of ale. The real action is in the venomous vineyards, mysterious mines, and spectral sanctuaries of the unexplored western frontier.

A Dynamic Approach

The first West Marches campaign was created by Ben Robbins. Robbins sought to craft a game that fit people’s hectic lifestyles. His solution was a Dungeons & Dragon campaign with non-traditional core rules.

Game time is not set in stone. Sessions don’t have to start at 7:00 PM each night, for example. As long as a dungeon master is present, players can start and stop sessions whenever they want to. This means that a two-hour Tuesday night session could start at 6:00 PM, and a Saturday session could last from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Players determine the game schedule.

A party is not confined to four players and a single dungeon master – a West Marches session is open to 10 to 14 people. Two people can play on Tuesday night and eight on Saturday afternoon.

World time and lore are ongoing. Because session time and attendance are inconsistent elements, the time and the story must be constant and reliable. If the Tuesday game ended at midnight in the Temple of the Sirens, then on Saturday, the characters continue where they left off. If the Diadem of Destiny had been found on Tuesday in a chest dug out of the Perilous Pits of Parthia, it couldn’t be buried again for another character to find on Saturday. It doesn’t matter if the player who found it on Tuesday was absent on Saturday, the diadem has to stay found.

With such a dynamic setup, one other element had to be discarded – plot. There is no single quest for the characters to undertake or a storyline to follow. West Marches campaigns are driven by the desire to explore areas outside the scope of D&D games. While these campaigns employ the D&D system and its existing world and history, it deliberately strays from questing in cities and dungeons.

All players start and depart from one location. It’s usually a guild or a tavern. By always ending in one location, West Marches campaigns eliminate issues stemming from players not attending every session.

All characters begin the game at the same level. A dungeon master will decide on what skills and classes will be available in the game. Players create a backstory, and the dungeon masters are free to incorporate the characters in the narrative. Why does the dwarf Morigan want to leave the city? Is he running away from something in his past? Why is he obsessed with finding the ruins of the Gholla Vineyards?

Characters do not earn experience points in West Marches games after encounters or finding objects. Instead, characters advance one level if they finish the session alive and return to the starting location. The more sessions a player completes, the higher the character level becomes.

Spontaneous Storytelling

Prior to running a West Marches campaign, one or more dungeon masters will decide on the “map” of the campaign world. This map can be a hex map or a topographical fantasy map. The map will indicate forests, rivers, seas, mountains, and towns. It’s up to the map creators to add a few locations of interest or to leave the map bare. The dungeon master will have a general idea of where these places are. They will drop hints of fascinating places within the introductory narrative.

While scheduling the session, players are presented with the map. They must inform the dungeon master of where they will go first. This information gives the dungeon master adequate time to prepare. The dungeon master’s role is to facilitate the adventure, not to hinder it.

Players may elect to “go east towards the Blood Mountains,” and the dungeon master knows that the Sanguin Order’s fabled retreat lies in a mist-shrouded valley within said mountains. Once the game begins, the narrative will be riddled with mentions of the great treasure rumored to have disappeared with the Order’s knights 200 years before.

The narrator adds more tempting embellishments. Perhaps they add a sentence or two about the knights’ mystical powers that made them feared in all the kingdoms. Alternatively, the party could encounter an elderly crone fighting off some rabid animals. Her aged, scarlet cloak trimmed with ermine might intrigue the adventurers. She is victorious but dies from her wounds.

One of the party members might take the crone’s gnarled staff that contains runes pointing the direction to the retreat. The players must then decide to continue wandering or try to find the Order’s refuge. Whatever the decision, the dungeon master must agree.

One characteristic of West Marches gaming is the increased chance of character deaths. The frontier is far more dangerous and unpredictable than a dungeon in a market town. There is no preset map that shows the layout of a location, so players will not see where hidden caches or lurking monsters are. Every step could be disastrous, and players must work together when surprises are sprung.

West Marches game is spontaneous what-if storytelling that gets to the heart of the adventure. There are no side quests or mini-quests. Players must complete one mission per session. Unlike a traditional D&D game where a campaign can be composed of 10 or more quests, a West Marches campaign has one purpose. Once that purpose is achieved, the session ends. In our example, the game ends after the players have explored the retreat.

Technology Beckons

Technology added a social layer to West Marches game mechanics. Because players could not attend each game, they would write summaries of their adventures and email them to all the participants. This practice had the effect of connecting the players and led to ever more elaborate summaries. Some were even written as journal entries of the characters.

These summaries allowed the dungeon masters to record who got what, who went where, and what happened, so they could update the world map. As more things got added, the map became more detailed. New and existing players could study the map and be more motivated to go exploring.

With Skype, a headset and a computer, players can play from anywhere. You can enjoy West Marches as a text-only adventure using a chat system. For the best gaming experience, sessions can be hosted on Roll20, an online tabletop for RPG and board games.

Due to the sheer amount of information to create, organize, and maintain, West Marches games need more than one dungeon master. Players track their character’s progress and status through their summaries. Dungeon masters have to devise their own methods and tools to track locations, treasures, encounters, and monsters. They may also create audio samples to add atmosphere or display graphics of places and things.

Digital Sandbox

West Marches gaming uses the sandbox approach. Dungeon masters are limited only by their imagination, and players are more involved because their decisions define the world. This open approach allows game sessions to take full advantage of available technology and social media.

The West Marches system is continuously evolving. It has been adapted to work with all versions of D&D and its variants like Pathfinder. It encourages players to create their own adventures, adding to the variety of gaming choices. Thanks to this original approach, West Marches has earned its unique place in between tabletop games and computer games.


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