Starting a West Marches Campaign – Step By Step
From Jochen Linnemann
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1147
- Starting a West Marches Campaign (Part 1)
- Starting a West Marches Campaign (Part 2)
- Starting a West Marches Campaign (Part 3)
- Starting a West Marches-style Campaign (Part 4)
- Starting a West Marches-style Campaign (Part 5)
- Starting a West Marches-style Campaign (Part 6)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
My Mission Statement could be applied to many genres. I want Fantasy. Following the book, I need to decide on genre, setting, and scope.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next time I will start building my world, decide on mood, names, places, and people.
Starting a West Marches Campaign (Part 3)
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
High cliffs and rugged hills north of the #Dwarven Caravan Road, home to giants and goblinoids.
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.
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.
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.
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:
#Boneyard of Barons
#Silver Peaks near #Auheim
#Cave of Abyssal Gloom
#Moonclaw of #Wolfwood
Civilization and People!
Starting a West Marches-style Campaign (Part 5)
Home Sweet Home!
In previous installments, I stated my mission, defined a campaign frame, started a map by working top-down, and then came up with a few points of interest I distributed all over the map. The big picture is there and general “tiers of danger” are in place.
Now it is time to define the starting region in detail to get bits to associate with and parts to tinker with. And a place to call home and from where to start exploring the surroundings: our hometown of Holt-Lindeck.
Holt-Lindeck for Pathfinder
To get some basic numbers I am using my Settlement Calculator:
|Population:||3,528 adults; 933 children|
|GP Limit:||2,000 gp|
|Buying Power:||10,000 gp|
|Magic Resources:||35,280 gp|
The following stat block is based on the PRD.
NG Large Town
Corruption +1; Crime +0; Economy +1; Law -2; Lore +0; Society +4
Qualities academic, defensible, rural
Population 4,461 (3,122 humans; 892 halflings; 178 half-elves; 133 gnomes; 89 half-orcs; 47 other)
Magistrate Willert Moosball LG male halfling expert 9
Guild Master Durok LN male dwarf expert 12
Mistress Gemma Al’Amlinn CN female half-elf bard 5
Council Member Trivor Halberstein LE male human aristocrat 4
Distiller Amadeus Holt LN male human expert 4
Wire Drawer Taalanis Grayhair NG female elf magus 5
Magister Gernwald Berling CG male human wizard 11
Guide Otto Fyven LG male human warrior 3
Base Value 2,000 gp; Purchase Limit 10,000 gp; Spellcasting 6th
Minor Items 3d4; Medium Items 2d4; Major Items 1d4
On the Value of Gold
Different games (and different times here on Earth) use different exchange rates for precious metals – platinum, gold, silver, and copper. The PRD uses a flat 1:10 conversion, i.e., one gold piece is worth ten silver pieces. The DF RPG uses 1 pp = 2 gp, 1 gp=20 sp, 1 sp=20 cp (1 cp being the generic dollar). Both games define 50 coins to weigh a pound.
Comparing different products, consumables, and wages, I decided that the copper pieces of both games are equal in value. My conversion table based on this assumption follows (or in short: PRD gp / 4 = DF RPG gp).
|1 cp||1 cp||1:1|
|2 sp (20 cp)||1 sp (20 cp)||2:1|
|4 gp (400 cp)||1 gp (400 cp)||4:1|
|4 pp (4,000 cp)||5 pp (4,000 cp)||1:1|
Holt-Lindeck for Dungeon Fantasy
Applying the above conversion:
|Population:||3,528 adults; 933 children|
|GP Limit:||500 gp ($ 200,000)|
|Buying Power:||2,500 gp ($ 1,000,000)|
|Wealth:||176,400 gp ($ 70,560,000)|
|Payments:||1,764 gp/year ($ 705,600/year)|
|Magic Resources:||8,820 gp ($ 3,528,000)|
What are those Payments?
Normally, this is the income a lord would receive for giving town rights to Holt-Lindeck. Currently, no lord could grant rights and offer protection in return. I will interpret the 200 cp per head as Wallgelt – money to be paid for keeping the town wall in order and manned. As weekly upkeep/income is about 150 cp, this amounts to one week of service and keeping one’s spear and gambeson or leather armor serviceable. Alternatively, one can pay the money to the council and be freed of the service, but only the rich do that.
So, in addition to the 50 professional town guards, about 50 commoners are patrolling the walls. The wall is somewhat over a mile long. This amounts to one guard per 20 yards if all 100 would man the battlements.
GURPS City Stats defines its own format for settlements:
Holt-Lindeck (1021 NL)
Population: 4,461 (Search -1)
Physical and Magical Environment
Appearance: Attractive (+1)
Normal Mana (Common Enchantment)
Culture and Economy
Language: Common, Halfling
Wealth: Average (x1)
Status: -2 to 4
Government: Feudal, Oligarchy
CR: 3 (Corruption -1)
Military Resources: 62,454 copper
Defense Bonus: +7
The population consists of 3,528 adults and 933 children. Most of them are humans (70%) and halflings (20%), the rest (9%) being half-elves, gnomes, and half-orcs. Only a handful of cat-folk, dwarves, elves, and half-ogres live in town. As Holt-Lindeck specializes in government duties for the surrounding towns and villages, searching for offices is modified by 0 instead of -1. Hygiene is better in some parts of the town, especially those lying on higher ground or not completely populated and instead feature gardens and orchards.
Using GURPS Mass Combat, I can determine the fighting force of the town: 1 element of Bowmen, 2 elements of Light Infantry, 2 elements of Medium Infantry. The total Troop Strength is 12, and monthly maintenance amounts to 36,000 copper for these 50 guards. Support and logistics add another 18K for a total of 54,000 copper. That’s well within the budget (Military Resources), and the remainder nicely finances the Patrician Council’s extravaganza.
Holt-Lindeck has been the capital of the Margraviate Hochholt that was part of one of the warring kingdoms until 70 years ago when it declared independence. Since the margrave family died 50 years ago, the town’s council concentrated more on itself and the immediate surroundings, abandoning outlying communities.
Originally, the town wall was planned to protect five thousand citizens. About 20% of the enclosed area has not been occupied by buildings and is used for gardens and orchards. About 10% of the buildings within the walls have been deserted and fallen into disrepair.
Three gates provide access to town: The King’s Gate in the west at the end of the Old King’s Road, the Harbor Gate in the northeast, near the bridge leading to the Dwarven Caravan Road, and at the end of the north road to Halberstein, and the Castle Gate in the south where a road leads to Freiholt.
Local tradition recognizes the hereditary position of the Gatekeeper. The three keepers live with their families in the gatehouses. They are responsible for opening and closing the gates as well as questioning and taxing visitors. Members of the town guard assist them.
Since the vanishing of the margrave family, the castle is off-limits. In fact, the castle grounds have been sealed, the gate magically locked. Locals even report eerie lights flickering inside the castle on especially dark nights.
Lying in a bend of the river Linner only a few miles north of where the Silver-Linner joins the main branch, Holt-Lindeck features a small harbor on the rocky shores of the town. Piers and warehouses are partly built on stilts, and they cramp between the town wall and the shore.
In the meantime, I started a first beta run through the concept, and some questions came up, which I want to answer here, too:
- Q: Should all player characters come from the Borderland?
- A: No, this is not required. It is easiest and likely that most characters hail from there. But you could also play a war-weary, deserted soldier from the warring kingdoms, a dwarf from the eastern or southern mountains, a cat-girl from the golden south, etc.
- Q: You are treating this differently than Ben did. Why did you isolate the area completely?
- A: Ben is aiming for exploration. I want to add social and economic components, e.g., the “dreaded” MMO housing topic or the not that evil “town-play” (at least in my opinion). There is a power vacuum in the Borderland, ready to be filled by player characters that want to grow into that role. I should really have given a razor for my approach! That would have been “West Marches meets Kingmaker”. This is an optional facet of the campaign. I like the idea of having this available beyond mere exploring the land. And it adds a charming answer to “What should I do with all my treasure?”
Starting a West Marches-style Campaign (Part 6)
Last time I prepared my Home Base, this time I will talk about my campaign’s pantheon.
The Gods of Borderland
Johnn has published a cool article by Tim van der Hout on creating pantheons: Putting The Gods Back In Their Place. You may want to give it a read for ideas on how to create your own gods.
I will start with my original thoughts and then look at them from the angle of the above post.
- Individual gods, no heavenly families
- Fewer gods, not myriad celestials
- Forces of nature also representing the desires of commoners
- Alignable with central European folk tales
Having the typical D20 alignments in mind, I want each axis to be covered by gods without resorting to extremes. So I need gods for NG, LN, N, CN, and NE. This pantheon will be known as the divine “cross” to scholars.
Here are the gods I came up with:
Neutral Good god of the sun, light, and life.
He is the one who defined the current calendar’s year count. We are living in the year 1021 NL (i.e., “New(born) Light”) – 1021 years ago, Solus sacrificed his heart to reignite the sun and bring back light, life, and hope to the world.
His church has a formal structure and hierarchy, and you can find a shrine or temple in most settlements. In larger villages or towns, these are tended by ordained priests, while smaller settlements tend their shrines in a community effort and often have at least a lay priest guiding ceremonies.
While the normal cleric is benevolent and forgiving, the church also has a zealous warrior branch. These inquisitors are tasked with rooting out evil. Some are fanatical and unwilling to tolerate deviant behavior in any form. Blasphemies are met with immediate death. Excommunicated are treated as beyond redemption.
His symbol is the sun.
Neutral goddess of love, fertility, and springtime.
She is the goddess most commoners pray to most of the time. Freya protects hearth, home, and family. She ensures strong crops and children alike. Her outdoor year starts with plowing and sowing and ends with harvesting and celebrating. In the darker months, she warms her followers’ souls and guards the house and community.
Her church has no formal structure beyond a local level. Traveling priests facilitate an exchange of thoughts and rites. Clerics are expected to marry, have children, and settle down after their traveling years. Freya abhors cruelty and violence. She has no holy warriors.
Her symbol is a grain ear.
Lawful Neutral goddess of winter, storms, and judging.
Perra is the goddess of justice. She hunts down perpetrators, oath-breakers, and murderers. She has no compassion for wrong-doers and does not know mercy. All sins and evil acts are recorded throughout the year. With the coming of winter, the Wild Hunt sets out to chase infringing souls leaving their homes. Therefore, banishment from the protection of a community is seen as the most severe conviction.
Her church does not support temples. Instead, smaller shrines are maintained in towns and cities. The priests tending them are known as Oath Advisors. They are called on as witnesses over important deals and sworn oaths.
In the wild, the church maintains monasteries where holy warriors are trained. They are active throughout the whole year and investigate and hunt greater evil. While the Wild Hunt accounts for accumulated lesser evil acts, these “Rough Knights” hand out immediate justice wherever needed. When actively confronting trespassers, these fighters don gruesome masks to signify that Perra is after them and not a normal person.
Her symbol is a bloody hatchet.
Chaotic Neutral goddess of the moon, of change, and fate.
As a goddess, Luna is difficult to grasp. She is omnipresent but subtle. She rules the night sky, except for the new moon. She knows the fate of every person but does not really care. She inspires and depresses, sometimes at the same time. She rules everyone’s life like she rules the tides of the sea. She embodies beauty, serenity, loneliness, and madness alike.
Artists, gamblers, bards, and adventurers flock to her shrines, praying for inspiration, luck, and safe journeys. Her houses are seldom fixed places. They may be a traveling cleric’s tent, the atelier of a famous sculptor, a tavern room where tall tales are told and spirited songs are sung, or even an idyllic pond that mirrors the moonlight.
Her clerics are often hedonistic, willing to try everything, talk about anything, learn and teach whatever they are currently interested in. They are often driven by wanderlust and a deep desire for change. Most of the time, they are welcome, although they often change the visited community unexpectedly.
Her symbol is the moon.
Neutral Evil god of the underworld, deception, and death.
Most people only come into contact with Hehl as the god of the underworld and death in general. But he is so much more. He rules half of creation. Sky and Earth are for gods and people. But below everything is his. Life is short. Death is eternal. And even in life, sleep – the little death – is touched by him. Life is just a deception, and he knows everything about deceiving. Those who free themselves of the shackles imposed on them by false ideals can start to be free even during their lifetime.
A thousand years ago, Hehl brought freedom to the Earth and the people. He extinguished the sun and sent the gods back to their realms. He tore down the border between life and death. His rule over creation lasted for just one year. Then the gods and the greatest heroes of the people united and together battled Hehl’s legions and finally overthrew Hehl himself. Now he is shackled in hell, never to pose any harm to creation again.
There are no known temples of Hehl. No cleric of Hehl has been seen in public for a long time. There are underground cults, though. And, although discouraged, people still shortly pray and sacrifice to Hehl on the graves of their loved ones to ensure an acceptable afterlife.
His symbol is a fiery circle of chains.
Besides the major gods described above, there are several lesser gods, demigods, and greater spirits worshiped locally. Another major divine element is hero worship. Especially heroes that fought a thousand years ago side-by-side with the gods to send Hehl back to hell. Some of them ascended to minor deities after the final battle.
Neutral demigod of war, sleep, and death.
Kerzaal was a hero who fought in the last battle against Hehl. He led the armies of mortals and landed the last blow to the Deceiver. Afterward, he ascended to godhood and inherited the domains of sleep and death from Hehl. He is a warrior by heart and does not take sides. He is more feared than venerated. His standards are high, and he expects each warrior to hone their skills and fend for themselves. Extraordinary fighters who died without fear can expect to be chosen to his hall.
He is primarily worshipped in the Warring Kingdoms, where his cult is strongest since the beginning of the Long War.
His symbol is the greatsword.
My Gaming Setup
We are playing the Borderland game online. I am using a notebook and an additional monitor. I prefer theater of the mind and therefore chose video-chat over a VTT. As the voice/video-chat app, we use Discord. For graphical visualization, we settled for Miro. Thanks to Groupy, I can have all the different apps arranged in tabs.
On the attached monitor, I run Discord chat on the left half. That window is grouped with my PDF viewer, where I have the most important rules opened. The right half of the monitor is further divided: the upper quarter shows the Discord video streams of all participants as a popout, and the lower quarter displays our Dice Room.
On the notebook monitor, I have Miro grouped with Campaign Logger full-screen. The CL displaying browser has three tabs: a) names/NPCs, b) plot/5 Room Dungeon Canvas, c) session log.
The next installment shall gather all the feedback from the first season – my beta run.