The Definition of a
West Marches Campaign
What is a West Marches Campaign?
Put simply, a West Marches Campaign is an episodic campaign structure and play style for traditional role-playing games that was designed explicitly for open table play.
What does this mean in practice?
Well, first a quick history lesson.
Did you know that the Original Edition of D&D specified that it was for four to fifty players?
Yep. For real.
Here’s the direct quote from page 5 of the OD&D Men & Magic Rulebook:
Now, that’s not fifty players sitting around the table all at once (although there have been sessions in older editions with up to twenty players at a single table), but “back in the day” a single campaign would have multiple groups coexisting and exploring the world simultaneously.
Naturally, this required meticulous record keeping pertaining to the passage of time, as the actions of one group would affect the world for the rest of the players.
Today, a West Marches Campaign captures this spirit, while adding in other elements to make gameplay more flexible and engaging.
There are a number of great articles that define what a West Marches Campaign is and how to run one:
- Ars Ludi – Grand Experiments: West Marches by Ben Robbins, creator of the West Marches Campaign format
- RPG StackExchange – What Defines a “West Marches” campaign?
- RPG Museum – West Marches
- Nerdarchy – Delving into the West Marches Campaign Style
- Nerdarchy – Delving into the West Marches Campaign Style: First Adventuring Sessions
If you’d rather watch or listen than read, take a look at this excellent video from DM extraordinaire Matt Colville:
All of the above are great resources on how a standard West Marches ampaign works.
Of course, we’ve taken this concept a step further and customized it to suit our ends.
So, with that being said, here is how we define a West Marches campaign in the context of Secrets of the Barrowmaze:
How Secrets of the Barrowmaze works:
Here’s how our West Marches MegaDungeon campaign functions. We take all of the elements of the standard West Marches Campaign and make some campaign-specific modifications.
There is No Regular Scheduled Play Time
Every session is scheduled by the players with DM Greg on the fly using his booking calendar.
There Is No Regular Party
Each session had different players drawn from a pool of around 40-50 people.
Players can communicate with one another to share information (in character) and muster parties (both in and out of character) on the campaign’s Discord Server.
Players aren’t just allowed to go out and adventure with different PCs each session, they’re encouraged to do so!
There Is No Regular Plot
The players will decide where to go and what to do.
Think of this as a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto.
Now in “archetypical” West Marches Campaigns, there’s no “mysterious old man” sending parties on quests; no overarching plot, just an overarching environment.
We do things a little differently.
In Secrets of the Barrowmaze, players can choose to:
Delve into the Barrows
Go exploring the legendary Barrowmaze, a true old-school
death trapdungeon crawl experience. Be ready for unscaled encounters, save-or-suck traps and effects, and Monsters That Know What They’re Doing. It’s a merciless, unforgiving grind, but those who live to tell the tale shall grow in power and wealth, and their names shall become legend throughout the land!
Explore the Duchy of Aerik
Traveling the surrounding lands is more of a traditional hex crawl, and there’s a lot to see. From visiting the seat of power at Ironguard Motte to climbing the Moon Peaks, there’s a lot to do in the region… and a lot going on, if you pay attention. There’s also (at least) one whole other dungeon hidden somewhere on the map!
Select a job off the Job Board
For players seeking a more traditional “one-shot” session, they can take a job off the Job Board! This board exists in-game just outside The Early Grave Tavern, and out-of-game on the campaign Discord server. Taking a job is also a great way to curry favor with particular NPCs, earn some quick gold, and learn more about the ins-and-outs and goings on within the region. Jobs can be one-session specials or ongoing offers and range from events like escort missions to bounty hunts.
Also, while it may not be obvious at first, there is an overarching plotline in motion happening within the depths of the Barrows, and players will have the opportunity to learn more about what’s going on (and possibly how to stop it) as they explore.
It is also important to note that players will need to choose one of the three options above when they book their session so DM Greg knows what to prepare for them.
All Sessions Begin and End In Town
Town represents safety. There are only sources of information, rumors, plot hooks, and supplies in town; no combat or monster encounters (except, in our campaign, for very, very special self-contained events).
Every session begins in the Village of Helix, and adventurers who survive the adventure will end the session back in town, usually over drinks at The Early Grave.
This means every session is neatly self-contained, and it gives that session’s players an in-game reason to share information with the rest of the player base.
Speaking of which…
Session Reports (aka After-Action Reports)
As all PCs are assumed to spend their downtime in the same town, word gets round about what happens on each adventure.
Players are encouraged to create session reports and post them in The Early Grave channel on the campaign Discord.
It’s a living world, and one adventuring party may find a locked door in a northern corridor, while another finds a random key tucked inside a chest in the southeast corner.
Adventurers commiserating about their experiences can discover new plot points and quest hooks, and new hooks can be picked up by any group of players.
Also, there is a mechanical benefit for players who contribute high-quality session reports; they start their next session with Inspiration and an extra 25 gold pieces in their character’s pocket.
Multiple players are welcome to submit after action reports for the same session, as each character will have their own perspective on events that transpire.
All reports should be done in character.
Session reports do not have to be simple written accounts; they can be songs, poems, illustrations, videos… the sky’s the limit.
Also, the more effort and creativity that go into them, the greater the bonus.
While the borders of Aerik are clearly defined, it has been generations since the Duchy was last surveyed, meaning maps of the region are at best simply outdated, but potentially lack important information such as newer roads and settlements or shifts in geological features.
Beneath the swampy surface, the Barrows lie uncharted. Professional surveyors are rarely brave enough to tackle such a risky and gargantuan task. Those that did find the gumption and journeyed into the dungeon’s dark depths… have yet to return. And most adventurers thus far have been focused more on lining their pockets with coin and getting back out alive than figuring out the maze’s myriad pathways.
That means it’s in the players’ best interest to cooperate and collaborate on maps of both the surface and the Barrows, and it shall be up to them to decide how they want to go about doing so, both in-game and out.
Any adventurer worth their salt will tell you how a good map can save your life… and a bad one can end it just as quickly.
The World is Alive. And Dangerous.
It’s a jungle out there.
Well, actually it’s a thirty-something-mile long swamp, but the sentiment is the same; there’s danger around every corner, both above ground and below. And the further you get from town, the greater the risk.
In the spirit of the OSR, encounters are *loosely* scaled. That is to say random encounters around the Village of Helix will range anywhere from CR 0 to CR 7, and the further away you get from the Village, the CR range only goes up.
In order to ensure that players understand the risks involved in a given encounter, they are provided with enemies’ Hit Points (current and total) and Armor Class.
Furthermore, players can use History, Arcana, Religion, or Nature skill checks to see what their characters know about the creatures they encounter and their abilities.
Finally, to ensure fairness for all players, all of DM Greg’s combat die rolls (attack, damage, and saving throws) are done in the open. Skill checks (such as Stealth, Sleight of Hand, etc) are still rolled behind the screen in order to preserve mechanical and narrative suspense.
Oh, and did we mention the MegaDungeon?
Secrets of the Barrowmaze is based on Barrowmaze Complete 5e by Dr. Greg Gillespie, and the titular 300+ room dungeon is the centerpiece of this campaign.
“Local villagers whisper of a mysterious place deep in the marsh – a place shrouded in mist and dotted with barrow mounds, ruined columns, and standing stones. The tomb-robbers who explore beneath the mounds – or rather the few who return – tell tales of labyrinthine passages, magnificent grave goods, and terrifying creatures waiting in the dark. Are you brave (or foolish) enough to enter the Barrowmaze?”
Okay, so what’s a MegaDungeon?
So glad you asked! RPG Museum provides a list of nine common traits of MegaDungeons:
- The MegaDungeon is big, and has many levels; in fact, it may be endless
- It follows its own ecological and physical rules
- It is not static; the inhabitants and even the layout may grow or change over time
- It is not linear; there are many possible paths and interconnections
- There are many ways to move up and down through the levels
- Its purpose is mysterious or shrouded in legend
- It’s inimical to those exploring it
- Deeper or farther levels are more dangerous
- It’s a (the?) central feature of the campaign
Barrowmaze fulfills each of these characteristics nicely; it is a sprawling (300+ rooms!), living (well, mostly undead) and ever-changing self-contained ecosystem, chock full of mystery and danger.
The West Marches campaign format synergizes with the MegaDungeon setting very well: both campaign styles start and end their sessions in a safe place (such as a town), and have a heavy emphasis on exploration.
The sheer size of the dungeon itself means that there will be enough material for adventuring parties of all experience levels to explore this space for years to come.
When one party clears out a room in the dungeon, it may still be empty by the time the next party comes through… or it may now be occupied a new (possibly bigger and more dangerous) creature.
And while players are welcome to explore the Duchy, the real reward (and risk) of the campaign can be found down in the Barrows.