Starting a West Marches Campaign - Step By Step - Roleplaying Tips

Starting a West Marches Campaign – Step By Step

Starting a West Marches Campaign – Part 1

Some time ago, I decided to start a West Marches type campaign with the idea of an episodic, easy-to-prep game for a group changing players in mind. So, I started to research the topic.

Reading Tips

Google was a good jump off point, and I found this post to be a nice summary and introduction: What defines a West Marches Campaign.

Mission Statement

Several things struck a chord with me:

No Regular Plot – A Sandbox Game

Or as Johnn Four put it: Setting over Story (you may want to review Johnn’s GM Triangle as outlined in the Adventure Building Master Game Plan). I find it relatively easy to develop an involved plot, but world-building is not my forte. This would be an interesting change of pace for me!

My motivation behind this: albeit having an elaborate plot, I often have players who don’t invest much into their character and create only a marginal background. It isn’t easy to forge them into the story and provide a deep immersion environment. Instead, they enjoy socializing, rolling dice, playing a stereotypical role, and going through the world’s scenery.

This kind of game should suit us as a group as well as interested new players.

The Players Decide – In Advance

I love proactive players, and I am glad to follow along. Deciding where to go and what to do in advance lets me prepare with focus and meet their expectations and provide appropriate twists. No luring, no quests that might not hit home. No guessing what new players might want. In effect, the players get to flag their intentions, and I can make it an adventure for them.

A Shared World – A Shared Story

Sharing session reports sounds like motivating fun. The aspect of a living world that can be experienced firsthand, or by following other player characters’ stories, promises increased interest and investment. I look forward to seeing this develop and whether this turns out as expected.

Competition for discoveries, achievements, and treasure seems to be a great motor for a living campaign where the story is written by the players instead of being dictated by the GM’s plot.

Summary

These will be the pillars I want to build my game on: “A sandbox where I provide the setting, and the players write their own shared story based on their own decisions, giving me a hint where to go ahead of time.”

How will you state your mission?

What’s Next?

Following Johnn Four’s advice, I will need a map. It should contain points of interest arranged around a home town. The difficulty of objectives should increase in rings around that starting point.

A fellow Adventure Builder, Stephan H., suggested to prepare handouts for the objectives so players can hand them around to decide which way to go. This can also be done using a virtual map with info pins added; I am thinking of using the World Map project (one of Campaign Logger’s extensions in development) for this.

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Starting a West Marches Campaign (Part 2)

This is my 2nd post on Starting a West Marches-style Campaign. You can read my Mission Statement in my [previous post].

This post will step back a bit from building the world and decide on the campaign’s frame. I will use GURPS Fantasy to guide me on this tour. I could have used any other system, but for now, it seems the least biased towards any specific kind of fantasy.

Campaign Frame

My Mission Statement could be applied to many genres. I want Fantasy. Following the book, I need to decide on genre, setting, and scope.

Genre

Browsing through all described genres, I find Sword and Sorcery to be the most appealing.

“The focus […] is adventure.”  That first sentence sounds true.

Reading through the first paragraph, I imagine an empty borderland. The civilization on the other side of some barrier is war-torn and succumbing to a plague. The 100-Year War comes to my mind. As world-building instead of plot-building is part of my mission statement, I will ignore the remark of “Elaborate worldbuilding isn’t the point […]”

Adventuring magic will be wielded by players and NPCs alike, and it will be fast. From High Fantasy, I will import the fact that mighty spells and rituals are hidden, forgotten, or the domain of NPCs, and this mythic magic is time-consuming, dangerous, or both.

A bit of Dark Fantasy will be represented by darker magic and more terrifying monsters in my rings of difficulty.

Setting

Skimming through this chapter, I conclude that my world will be another planet with its own history and no connection to Earth itself, its past, or its future. After all, I want to improve my worldbuilding skills. That said, I will of course “steal” from Earth and its history and myths.

I especially like the Motifs boxes in this chapter of GURPS Fantasy and will use them later in preparing my campaign.

A Twist

Every setting should have a twist to make it unique or at least a bit different. I like to add Cthulhu to everything. But this time, the ingredients from above – 100-Year War, a bit of mythical and dark fantasy – sound a lot like the folk tales from the Brothers Grimm.

I will use these tales as inspiration and will try to give my setting an early medieval central European feel.

I will reread my folk tales and also rewatch Brothers Grimm and Krabat.

Scope

The Base and Mission Campaign matches my mission statement. The hometown will be the base. The advance decisions of the players determine their chosen mission into my rings of difficulty.

I will need to prepare several maps to prevent my players from taking missions too dangerous at the beginning.

The first map will be the hometown and surrounding villages and some lairs.

The second map will add remote and weird hamlets as well as more dangerous ruins.

The third map will expand to touch the real wilds and the warring kingdoms.

At that point, my game will turn into an Area Campaign covering the world.

What’s Next?

Next time I will start building my world, decide on mood, names, places, and people.

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This is my 3rd post on Starting a West Marches-style Campaign. You can read about my Campaign Frame.

I’m using Campaign Logger as my Source of Truth, so the content below uses the apps’ special tagging notation.

The Map

Starting a map isn’t easy for me. I will quickly lose myself in detail, and when getting back to the larger picture I often find my details don’t match up aesthetically.

Instead of directly opening a drawing tool, I will verbally sketch my map first. I will start with the continent, go down to the country, and then detail the regions with rough maps.

The Continent

  • The West: Feudal kingdoms fighting a century-old war. These are the lands of ^Humanity. Life is unpredictable, low, and dangerous there. In recent years, *The Plague has ravaged human lands and killed people by the thousands.
  • The East: Mostly unexplored and wild. Several attempts have been made to settle there, but all failed after a few decades. Legend holds that somewhere to the east lies the origin of Dwarvenkind. The last exodus of the dwarves was headed to that #Ancestral East about a century ago.
  • The North: The #Amber Sea extends to the #All-Frozen. The *Eternal Mist of the sea is shrouding lush islands that are the home of ^Elvenkind.
  • The South: The #Golden Lands are the origin of exotic people and wares. Best known are the ^Catfolk tobacco merchants.

The Country

The game will take place in the former Margraviate of #Hochholt (“High Wood”). It was part of one of the warring kingdoms but declared independence about 70 years ago. 20 years later, a tragedy killed all members of the margrave-family and left #Castle Holt uninhabitable. Since then, the land is just known as the #Borderland. In the last decades, many outlying communities lost contact with the center of the margraviate, and some were abandoned altogether.

People from those border villages constitute a good part of the former capital town of #Holt-Lindeck. Roads are no longer patrolled. The town watch of #Holt-Lindeck is the only organized armed force in the land. The ^Patrician Council of the town keeps the watch nearby to protect the walls and at most the surrounding villages that provide food for the population.

The #Borderland is “sheltered” by the #Hag Marshes in the west from being drawn into the war. Trade has faltered mostly, but merchants from the south going for the #Amber Sea and the odd dwarven caravan from the east still come by once in a while.

^Halfling crews, constantly rivaling each other, dominate transportation by boat on the river #Linner (“Snake”). Two or three extended ^Half-Orc families provide mercenary duties to the rich and/or desperate.

There is only one other, albeit smaller, town to the east: #Auheim. Originally, it was just another village completely dedicated to farming. But ^Gnome prospectors reopened an old dwarven gold mine 30 years ago and started to dig up silver. Soon #Auheim attracted other miners and silver workers and started to grow in the shadows of the #Silver Peaks. Today the new-found wealth can afford the replacement of the old stockade with a sturdier wall.

The Region

The town of #Holt-Lindeck, dominated by #Castle Holt, lies at the starting region’s center. It was built on the west bank in a bend of the river #Linner, flowing from south to north. A bridge of dwarven construction crosses the water and connects the town to the farming villages dotting the east bank and hinterlands.

A bit to the south, a lesser arm of the #Linner fed by streams from the #Silver Peaks joins the main run. The rest of the surrounding country is mostly forest. Here and there, one can find a well-protected hamlet or abandoned village.

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Starting a West Marches-style Campaign – Part 4

Points of Interest

Points of Interest marked on the map will be what draws the PCs’ attention. Following the?Mission Statement, my players will likely choose from them in advance so I can prepare the scenario/adventure on the point.

For me, a point of interest should have an evocative name, hinting at something that might be there. A line or two of common lore would help a lot to get your players’ imagination started.

As I wrote in? Easy Mapping, I want at least one point of interest per 20 hexes of my map to start with. Some of them will be natural features, some artificial structures. My final map will have between 500 and 600 hexes, so I want to start with at least 25 points of interest – enough for 25 sessions or a year of bi-weekly gaming.

#Hag Marshes
A several miles wide strip of wetland separates the warring kingdoms and the?#Borderland. It is the home of several hag covens and their goblinoid minions.

#Twilight Forest
North of the?#Old King’s Road?lies this deep forest, rumored to be the home of nefarious robbers and cannibals.

#Boneyard of Barons
Monumental cemetery of a lost barony to the south of?#Holt-Lindeck.

#Moonclaw?of?#Wolfwood
Monument fabled to lie deep in the?#Wolfwood?south of?#Old King’s Road. According to legend, it harbors the remnants of the last?*Heavenly Wolf.

#Silver Peaks?near?#Auheim
Former Dwarven gold mines reopened as silver mines by Gnomes. They rapidly grew?#Auheim?to the second largest settlement in the region.

#Dragon Crest
Mountain range far to the south of the?#Dwarven Caravan Road?and east of the?#Silver Peaks. It is the home of true dragons and their wyvern subjects.

#Giant Ridge
High cliffs and rugged hills north of the?#Dwarven Caravan Road, home to giants and goblinoids.

#Fairy Water
A large system of lakes to the north of the?#Dwarven Caravan Road, shrouded in mist and rumored to lie near the border of the?#Otherworld.

#Mirror Lake
Only lake not connected to the?#Fairy Water?and not shrouded in mist. Legend holds that when the moon is mirrored in the water on clear nights, a portal to the?#Moonrealm?is opened for anyone willing to leave this world behind.

#Lonely Tower
A lonely tower deep in the woods with no visible entrances and riddled with traps. It holds the forgotten riches of a long-dead archmage, or so they say.

#Cave of Abyssal Gloom
Somewhere to the north of the?#Dwarven Caravan Road?lies a system of caves. The central cavern harbors a shaft leading down into eternal darkness. Weird sounds from far below are the only hints at what lies down there.

Handouts/Map Pins

These places should be located on the map. If you use a virtual one, add map pins to link to additional info. When gaming at a table, you may want to prepare cards with available info to hand out to your players about these places of interest. As the game progresses, you can update these cards/pins with additional information.

You can find an example for my game here:? Borderland-Locations.pdf

I created a resource to get you started creating your own cards:? Handouts: Points of Interest

Rings of Danger

As suggested by Johnn Four, I will group my points of interest in rings of difficulty/danger. I’ll start with three tiers of increasing danger:

Tier 1

#Twilight Forest
#Boneyard of Barons
#Silver Peaks?near?#Auheim
#Lonely Tower
#Cave of Abyssal Gloom

Tier 2

#Moonclaw?of?#Wolfwood
#Giant Ridge
#Fairy Water

Tier 3

#Hag Marshes
#Dragon Crest
#Mirror Lake

What’s Next? 

Civilization and People!