The West Marches and Campaigns Like It

I recently read a series of really fascinating articles from Ars Ludi called Grand Experiments: West Marches (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4). With all the excitement surrounding the release of 4th edition, I’ve been reading alot of DMing articles and such to find inspiraition and to hone my skill set as a DM. The article I mentioned talks about a different sort of campaign we’re used to. Instead of a set plot line with a defined villain and goals, it’s very much a sandbox-style of campaign.

I find this to be really fascinating as it’s almost like exploring a more living, breathing world. Sometimes, from where I’m sitting at least, things can seem to be a bit linear. I sometimes feel that you guys are almost fearful of straying from the main plot just in case you might derail it indefinitely. I agree with that sentiment to some degree. With campaigns like the Shackled City (Cauldron), it had a very defined path and pacing to it that were fragile when faced with the possibility of players straying from the path. Furthermore, and honestly, unless I’ve made everything up on the fly, my ability to improvise is not always on call.

I want to fix that. I want to have a campaign like the West Marches. Start small with a town that has some ruins nearby and let the group decide their own fate. The idea, of course, being that stories and characterization are emergent. The characters would grow and change with the setting and NPCs would become alot more familiar.

At this point, it’s all just an idea. There’s not alot of play going on right now so I’m not certain it’s wise to start another campaign, and I’d really like to focus on the ones I’ve already got at this point, but I just thought I’d mention the idea and the articles as I’ve been thinking about it all a fair bit just lately.

5 thoughts on “The West Marches and Campaigns Like It”

  1. I think it sounds pretty intriguing. Definitely sounds a lot more like how we used to play before we needed to rely on the internet and stuff to play.

    We definitely had, and felt like we had, more freedom to do as we wanted in the worlds we explored. I find with the way most of us play, being tossed into an adventure from the get go can tend to sink most games before they really start because instead of taking time to feel out your character you are too busy trying to keep up with whatever crazy whirlwind adventure your wrapped up in.

    Taking more time and really immersing yourself in the world is important, but it is something we don’t get to do often. In Cauldron we had our moments, but those really only came about when the whole focus of the session was “downtime”. Taking the time to do this should not be something that has to be forced upon a player. As players it is our job to actually attempt too roleplay, not just look for the next monster to bash over the head.

    That being said though, a true sandbox style game is something i think we should definitely try. Be like old times and i think that is something we could all use a big dose of right about now. We are all fresh with 4E and ready to go, i think now is the time we try and find those crazy kids we used to be (and to some extent still are) and play like we used to. No world shaking events or pre-planned adventures. Just simply “Your character wakes up, what do you want to do today?”

  2. I guess on the flip side of the coin having a lack of a defined goal or path can sometimes be a detriment as well. As such, the trick to something like the West Marches’ model would require the players to really ingrain personal or group objectives for their characters right from the get go. Even if those objectives don’t take front and center, they can work to get the characters out the door and the ball rolling.

    Once Keep on the Shadowfell is done with I’m certainly open to the prospect of running a Marches’ style game, if it’s what you guys all want. We can set it in Eberron and we can explore a small corner of it for treasure and glory. I can put my current Eberron plans on hold or even recycle them into this for a higher level or something. Whatever ends up in a more enjoyable game for all involved, I’m 100% up for.

    I do want people to feel free to roleplay and explore. I don’t like it when I ask, “so what do you do?” and hear silence cause people are afraid of wandering off the beaten path, regardless of whether we’re playing a premade adventure or not. I think 4e’s really helping foster this sort of play, too. In 3e/3.5e it was a bit harder for the DM to handle the unexpected and still be able to keep it interesting. Alot more of 4e seems friendly to “winging it” so to speak.

    There’s alot of things I really like about the Marches’ model of play. I especially like the out-of-game discussions about what people have found that other people might be interested in. There is no set group, it’s just whoever’s there for each session. But not like our “blood and thunder” disappearing characters, but more like literally a different group of adventures strikes out from town each session. The hardest part of this that I can see is that basically the group has to be “done” by the end of the session. They have to get back to town or whatever so nobody’s in the middle of anything when the next session starts. I like how it’s basically a “play anytime” kind of thing. People are around and want to play, then you play. No predefined schedule.

    Of course, I don’t feel that every campaign needs to necessarily be like this. Sometimes it’s nice to have a big epic plot, and I think everyone enjoyed Cauldron regardless of it’s linearity. Maybe if we do this Marches’ experiment then it’ll help us (as a group) weave the two styles of campaign together so that whenever we get to the Age of Worms it can be a richer experience for it.

    I’ll stop rambling now. I really am curious what everyone thinks of this whole thing.

  3. I think it all sounds pretty awesome. (Finally just finished reading the whole article/blog) It does have a slight Oblivion feel to it. Like if you did not follow the main plot in Oblivion this is pretty much what you get. You locate dungeons by rumor or exploration, you search them, run when it’s too hard, if you go back later the dungeon could be repopulated.

    Something like this tied with a non linear over arching plot could be pretty cool too. Where as the GM you just say “if the PC’s don’t uncover any info about such and such evil plot then it happens by this date and now this is what is going on in the world” so it’s like if the players stop this from happening this happens, if they don’t this happens instead. That would give us the option to get involved, maybe not even know something is going on, or just keep exploring the world oblivious to the true danger the world faces. But the PC’s can choose to get involved or not.

    I mean it works for me, as long as we can schedule 2-6 PC’s for a given day to play we should be fine. Just means that if only 2 people show up to play one day they will obviously need to be more cautious with what they do then a larger party and may lead to more boring game sessions for everyone involved, but then we have all proven at one time or another that 2 people can still do some fun stuff. Our little Greyhawk game comes to mind, the one we played right before you moved to Whitby Curt. So i am all for this idea of player freedom.

  4. Alot of the plots I come up with usually have an either/or structure. If the players ignore the plot, it usually still moves on with or without them. Some pre-written adventures/campaigns even have this sort of structure, but not always. Some are a bit more railroady.

    I think regardless of whether the adventures we’ve been playing have truly railroaded anyone or not, I’ve gotten the impression that people seem to feel obligated to proceed along whatever path the adventure expects them to. I know that in the 3e days things kind of exploded if you wandered off the expected path set out by adventures, so that’s probably where this sort of thing is coming from. That said, I really feel that 4e enables the DM to wing it alot more than before, so I think we need to return to that absolute freedom feeling again. It’s way easier to be creative and establish contingencies in the event that the group wanders off the expected route.

    What I like about the Marches, and believe that it’ll be a good exercise for everyone (myself for sure) is that it’s essentially anti-plot. It’s not that it doesn’t have any epic plot or overarching plot, it has no plot at all. Monsters and NPCs will still have goals and motivations, but it’s not necessarily connected. The “plot”, then, emerges from the group’s actions. The focus is entirely on the characters and their treasure-seeking adventures in the region or what have you.

    One thing that really stands out with this model of play is that the onus for scheduling is entirely a group thing. Outside of the game, via email or whatever, people could be like “Oh, I really want to explore the Starweald Mines in the west, anybody else interested? How about this Friday?” If you get enough, and the DM is free, then you’re set! Off you go, that Friday, with whatever group configuration you get. 4e makes scaling things so much easier, so as long as you’re going somewhere your level, then you should be alright with however many players you can muster. That’s just awesome. And with our crazy schedules, I think it might really work well.

    The more I read/discuss/think about it, I really really want to try this. Like now. 😉

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