Friday, September 7, 2012

Whither the West Marches?

Running a West Marches-like campaign was something of a mini-trend in old school D&D circles at the tail end of the last decade. I should know because the eponymous campaign this spawned this blog was itself explicitly modeled around the concept in the early spring of 2008. At that time there was a beautiful array of much-blogged about campaigns running based on most if not all of the principles of the WM.

For those unfamiliar with the West Marches it was an “experimental” wilderness-oriented sandbox campaign run by Ben Robbins (the scare quotes denoting the fact that it was something very close to the kinds of campaigns of yore). The major features according to Robbins were:
1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.
2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.
3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

Other major defining features were a ban on “town” adventures; hexless, vector-based wilderness trekking (West Marches has often erroneously assumed to have been a “hex-crawl”); an encouragement of player-driven goal/self-organization; and a high degree of developed micro-detail when it came to wilderness and dungeon sites (each small region had a highly-tailored encounter table, landmarks and other often glossed over features had more emphasis, etc).

That it became a fad of old schoolers isn't a great mystery, Robbins' clear, articulate, widely-read dissection of what made his campaign work happened to coincide with a number of key assertions of the old school play style. That he ran it with 3.5 didn't matter, it was about the the literal meaning of “radicalism”--the paring back to get at roots--that held such great appeal. Such a precision focus on site-based, player-driven exploration was a winning concept.

But looking around today at all those related experiments I am struck by the fact that 3-5 years later all of the ones I am familiar with are gone. While the Hill Cantons campaign is still in fighting form, thriving even thanks to Google Plus, it has certainly evolved way beyond many of the defining boundaries of the WM. Over-aching plots, great mysteries, and urban adventuring—hell, the last two months of the campaign have been inside the confines of a single city—have become more and more the order of the day.

So where did all the West Marches go? Victims to the demands of adult life? Did the format feel too constraining? Or did they just simply evolve (as it did here) as the sands of the box lapped into other spheres?

Curious, thoughts? 


  1. I think that West Marches works really well as a framework, but that a few things work against following it strictly:

    1) having a ban on city adventures. Wot, no Lankhmar? No Minas Tirith? No Amber? Crazytalk.
    2) Wilderness exploration means that social situations are less likely to emerge. Given your affection for mountebanks and con men (one shared by the rest of the Nine) it seems only reasonable that we would gravitate towards something that offered more opportunities for these.

    1. Town adventures was among the first things to go, even though I tended to try and softly dissuade players from taking too much time there until fairly recently (you might remember that). While sites in the Weird are almost always by nature more lucrative, some of the best and memorable sessions in the last year have revolved around some crazed, player-driven hijinks in town.

      May be one explanation is that longer-standing campaigns take on dynamics and directions of their own. Better to roll with that since a wide-open, boundless-imagination is one of the great promises of the classic editions of the game.

      Still the WM approach I have to say was a great starting point. It really helped pare down the campaign to an a pretty sweet spot for me: focusing on the micro-detail of sites and dumping the elaborate GM-novel-in-your-head approach was extremely liberating. It also helped set a deeper exploration and player-focus into the assumptions of the campaign itself.

  2. My first inclination regarding West Marches-style games is how relatively rare it must be to have 10-14 available players. It sounds like a situation that would happen in college dormitories or a popular game store in a medium-to-big city. And even then, I would imagine that the natural inertia of the group would be to become smaller over time and then having more player-carryover from previous sessions would make the campaign drift toward something more traditional.

    All the above of course is within the historical contexts of these West March-style campaigns, which predate Constantcon. I suspect that a West March-style campaign with shared resources in Google Docs and games taking place in Hangouts would be fairly easy to "maintain" in the sense of retaining the feeling of a WM-style game.

  3. I ran it. It had similarities to Megadungeons. It was fun. There is only so much time, so what is it we choose to play?

    A+++ Campaign type. Would play again. Fast shipping.

  4. I shut mine down so I could write my novel - I have minimal writing time each week due to life (and wife) and couldn't do both. I finished the draft last week and starting editing plus additions. Next campaign will start some time next year. Haven't decided if I will do another West Marches-style or something different or even what game system.

  5. I will probably never stray from the West Marches style of campaign unless it would be for one offs.

    The issue with my Dark Ages campaign was that my life became so busy and complicated, something had to give. As well, I became extremely disillusioned with the "OSR", mainly the money-grabbing publishing side of it as I was starting to dip my toes there and found that I didn't like the water. The confluence of the two led me to shut the campaign down and blog down.

    So it wasn't the style of campaign, which I found very successful and fed directly into my preferred style of campaign (explore the wilderness, avoid intown adventures).

    1. Edit to correct: "So it wasn't the style of campaign (that led to my putting things on hiatus). I found West marches to be very success..."

    2. Mike, you were one of the first bloggers I read when I came back to gaming and your perspective brought balance to the OSR. I, for one, appreciated your contribution to it.

    3. The same holds for me, Michael's blog was among the first and best I was reading on my return.

      Interestingly I did find myself tooling around in its archives after writing this looking for the posts on the Dark Age. One of the things that was a departure point for me with the WM model was the no town adventures business. It interested me that Michael stuck with it as a matter of personal preference.

  6. Thanks for the kind comments. I'm glad you all found something to take with you. I know I found a ton of stuff that inspired me.

    The "no in town" stuff was a slippery slope. I had stuff going on in town, with NPCs and the like, but it was mainly in reaction to what was going on "out there" or set-up to spur on further stuff going on "out there". I found my game lagged when I got tied up in in town stuff. I really am just not the DM for that kind of thing. It was hard to keep things interesting enough outside to keep the players from being involved. What helped was that I made the town and people have neutral reactions to the players. I think I overplayed that a bit as the players started to not give a crap what happened to the town... I was setting up some things for them to start moving towards setting up their own power centers (that slow move to 9th level) but the campaign went on hold before that could happen.

    Feels like ages ago. :/

  7. Are you familiar with the sci-fi writing of Jack McDevitt? His "Academy" novels all featured a universe where he never bothered filling in all the details regarding alien life. The characters would encounter ancient ruins, et al but never ultimately understand the people who made them.

    1. Coincidentally I just finished a Talent for War two nights ago, but I'm not familiar with his other series (now intrigued, thanks).

  8. We're running a game based around the West Marches style here in Louisville, KY ( We're actually using the Adventurer Conqueror King System and have been going strong for nearly a year and close to 100 game sessions.

    On top of Ben Robbins' methods, we do a lot of Play-by-Post to supplement the wilderness excursions which leads to more roleplay. All of our scheduling is done via forum as well and we've implemented a "dibs" system to keep the social monster at bay (although we've had a couple situations we've had to deal with).

    The exciting part of our campaign is just beginning to happen as we enter the "Conqueror" phase of our campaign (several 7th level characters) and people are getting close to starting to carve out their own domains.

    To keep the demand from overwhelming one DM, we actually use two DMs who share the same world (updating each other on their happenings in the games they run so we're fairly coherent when we touch on the same parts of the world).

    We keep a Wiki to share session recaps, character notes, etc.

    All in all, I think it's been a great success (especially considering we're using a "retro-clone" and our campaign is super deadly at lower levels). We've had nearly 40 people play at least one session in the campaign and have around 15 or so "regulars" who play weekly or bi-weekly.

    1. "On top of Ben Robbins' methods, we do a lot of Play-by-Post to supplement the wilderness excursions which leads to more roleplay."

      That's fascinating, and in general it seems like y'all are embracing a number of new tools to help organize it. How does that work exactly? How long are the posts and do most players rise up to that?

      Curious about that.

    2. I do this too, and I think a lot of G+ games naturally fall into this.

      The "take from the hill cantons" posts are probably a form of this as well.

    3. There have been periods where real life has kept me from the game table for weeks at a time, yet my characters (we keep three active characters in case one dies in session, just so a sudden death doesn't end a players session) have been active in the campaign during this time with the online RPing - conversing with NPCs in the city they are based in at the time. One even took 2 months of game time off to construct a hospital and medical school in the campaigns 'parent city,' all handled online.

      The one disadvantage to the online aspect of the campaign is the number of active players we have. If you skip a day, or even half a day, you can sometimes miss developments in the sheer number of posts there are to review. We are, however, learning how to streamline things as we go, make it easier to follow what's going on.

      At the same time, though, having the wiki available is the best notepad you could hope for. It allows both the DMs and the players to take campaign and session notes, post character updates, and generally have a record we can go back and review.

    4. I'm guessing "Unknown" is our player Carlson who played Padrik the Cleric (recently retired to run the hospital).

      The forums are truly the hub of the campaign. We do so much through there, it's kind of astonishing.

      All of the "downtime" roleplay happens there. When each session ends (mostly) you are assumed to be back in town. We handle shopping, NPC interaction, magical research, etc.

      However, it's a totally voluntary aspect of the campaign. You could potentially do the minimum amount of forum browsing and still play in the campaign. We have some people who play once a month and others who are playing twice a week (in each DM's game depending on availability).

      Occasionally, we'll announce major happenings via forum thread. So, for example, we had a Chaotic character recently side with a God of Pestilence and unleash a toxic cloud over a swamp that spread to one of the settled cities in the Wilderness. This happened during a session, so after the fact, we established a thread describing everyone else nearby seeing the effects of it.

      Some of these threads are really simple: "I'm buying some silver arrows."

      Others are pretty involved and players really get into it. We've had Clerics giving sermons and adventurers having pow-wows over how to react to campaign developments and audiences with authorities and so on and so forth. We get pretty in depth in a lot of ways.

      To organize things, we've set up "sub-forums" for each aspect of the campaign: Session Planning, Campaign Discussion (rules and other campaign discussion), Tavern Talk (in character and roleplaying) and The Marketplace (for shopping and carousing).

      We even have a couple volunteer players who help manage the wiki and even run some of the NPCs on the forum during shopping trips and whatnot.

      It's pretty insane how successful we've been so far. I couldn't have imagined.

    5. You know, a forum sounds like it would work really well for this. I've tried using wikis, and they tend to rot and not be read by players. I'm currently using G+ threads which are nice for low friction, but they are a nightmare to search and G+ tech seems pretty shaky in places (not notifying about updates sometimes and that sort of thing). How do you organize your forum for this use, just one master forum or many fora?

    6. I have a sort of main blog page (admittedly needs to be updated) at our website:

      This has a lot of the Pitch, Rules, FAQ for people to look over and see if this is their thing.

      Then, I have a Simple Machines Forum installed at

      This is where most of the magic happens. When you're interested in playing, you sign up and introduce yourself to the rest of the group. Once you introduce yourself, I grant them permissions to "see" the campaign forums. There's a ton of info to be absorbed, so before I open up the forums, I like to see that they've read The Pitch and Rules and all that (our pitch and rules were inspired heavily by the West Marches pitch and New York Red Box's rules).

      Then, you can see the Session Planning / Campaign Discussion / Tavern Talk roleplay / Marketplace forum.

      The big one is Session Planning where we explain the dibs process and all that.

      In addition to all that, I used MediaWiki installed at for the more "regular" players to track session notes, location information, house rules, custom classes, character pages, etc. I try to acknowledge the big Wiki contributors by giving them special colors on the forums.

      Also, at the beginning of each session we have volunteers who offer to be the Mapper and Notetaker (a lot of times, these are the more dedicated and reliable people in the campaign). Sometimes session notes go missing, but most of the time they get up and we link it all back together.

      If you want, you can check out our site and register for our forum. I'll set you as an active player and you can browse around and get a feel for what we do.

    7. To Add: the forum makes things unbelievably easy to reference and refer to later... I don't know how many times I've been like, "Wait, who did I say lived in the Silver Realm? And what was that magical item I gave out? And, when did I say that Wyvern training would be complete?" And, simply do a forum search and find the old thread.

      I imagine G+ would be a nightmare to try and organize like that.

  9. I couldn't get my couple attempts off the ground.

    Player scheduling was FAIL. Unless you have confident, organized, assertive players they won't schedule. No one wanted to be the guy who said fuck it, we're playing Sat It doesn't matter "bob" can't make it that day. Nothing every happened unless I forced it.

    Never enough players.

    Getting back to town, understanding what to do (there needs to be a 1-3rd+ lvl dungeon in or just outside of town, wilderness being deadly to 1-2nd level), expecting a story, thinking if they missed a session they'd "fall behind" or miss "the plot" all were minor issues.

    To be fair I also semi-burned out/depression just after start of at least one campaign.

    What has worked (for me) and I continue to attempt to use; is the sandbox, no plot (or player produced plot), come and go as you please, new players can jump in any time. In fact this Sunday, I'm restarting my original WM, Gold and Glory, with less WM and more mutants.

    Unrelated, sorry I missed the con, more burnout/depression.

    1. Norman, there are some downsides to this style of play. You have to have a vision and stick to it. Also, a lot of people I played with previously in "regular" groups just didn't like the concept. I had to move on and play with them on the side.

      Really, the best advice I can give is to advertise your game well and you will find those assertive players.

      Outside of that, hammer the players with a couple big leads initially. Treasure maps, rumors, etc. These are all good starters that give the players a reason to go explore. Put lots of treasure out there for them to find and make sure you have a couple locations ready to go so they can actually choose between a couple.

  10. So after a couple of years of real life interfering, I'm restarting my solo campaign with @thePrincessWife and my Dark Ages (West Marches) game, online only for now with that one.

    The reason I am writing to perform blog post necromancy is that I found some of your pointcrawling posts (nice idea! May make 1 Page Wilderness Settings a reality for me) and you mentioned doing vector maps ala West Marches. Did you ever share what that looked like?

    1. Man, those were great posts (your recaps of those sessions), mostly because I always have fun when I drag my non-gamer Special Lady Friend into the games. The maps weren't anything special other than them being without hexes or squares. I used a metric ruler and would mark points with a centimeter being a mile (and 5mm a half if I needed finer changes of direction). The scale was small enough at that point that I could finesse it. Basically it would be an organic type movement. They would walk say southeast until hitting a line of cliffs or a treeline and then change direction.

    2. Thanks. If I do more session recaps, they'll probably be on my G+. I just don't have the yen to resurrect the blog.

      Is it OK to take this to G+?

    3. Oh yes definitely, that's pretty much where I have most of my gaming conversation these days.