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I'm currently nine sessions into a West Marches style game with a pool of 20 players. The sessions are going well, and the players enjoying themselves, but I have a concern:

One of the central precepts of the West Marches style is that players organise sessions themselves, including deciding the goal. The idea is that players discuss previous sessions in intervening periods, write session logs, and update a shared map. This is supposed to incentivise other players to organise sessions, as they feel that they are in danger of missing out on the action. For example, if a group discovers a dungeon in one session, players should then, upon hearing about this, compete with one another to be the next group to enter it. As Ben Robbins puts it:

An intentional side effect of both game summaries and the shared map was that they whetted people’s appetite to play. When people heard about other players finding the Abbots’ study in a hidden room of the ruined monastery, or saw on the map that someone else had explored beyond Centaur Grove, it made them want to get out there and play too. Soon they were scheduling their own game sessions. Like other aspects of West Marches it was a careful allowance of competitiveness and even jealously to encourage more gaming.

I run an Obsidian Portal website to organise the campaign. After each session I make a post in the adventure log session recording which characters attended the session, which survived, and which died, followed by a two sentence summary. For example:

A party of five hardy adventurers journeyed into the hills north of Balloch, searching for a lair of evil green-skinned creatures. Only one returned, wounded and exhausted.

My players do discuss the events of a session immediately after it, but no one writes session logs (although players have been known to write short comments on my adventure log posts), or discusses sessions further.

As a result, players tend to forget about the game between sessions. One player is particularly enthusiastic and has organised the vast majority of the sessions so far. Similarly, there is a core of players who turn up most of the time. I feel that, by lacking the collective or competitive spirit intended to be part of the West Marches, we may be missing out on the part that makes the game more than 'the arbitrary dungeon delve of the week with some dead reckoning navigation needed to get there' (as Reddit4Play put it).

That said, the current situation is still working pretty well, and we're all enjoying ourselves; I just feel that the campaign is missing something. I understand that my players are busy, and that I can hardly expect them to invest much time in the game when they're not playing. And so the question really becomes:

How can I encourage my players to be more engaged with the campaign between sessions, without taking up too much of their time?

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I have not run a West Marches game, but I have run games where players were active between sessions.

The secret was: give them something to do.

Many games will involve players doing some one-on-one interaction with the DM: going shopping, talking to NPCs, experimenting with strange magics and equipment, interrogating prisoners, making skill checks at the library, item crafting, and any other downtime activities.

You'll show up at the table and players will say: "I want to spend 1800gp on a new cap of disguise, can I find someone to sell me that?" And the trick is to answer: "Not right now, we're only doing whole-party activities right now. That sort of thing can happen between sessions -- email the whole group, and I'll respond with the result of your actions."

The emails will generate more emails if you're doing it right.

I had a rule that you can attempt anything you want, but if you attempt something that's dangerous, I might reply with: "...you walk down the alley and three shadowy figures walk out of a door behind you. It looks like they're hostile. Let's defer this line of interaction to the gaming session, where we'll start by rolling initiative."

You've noted that the West Marches town is a safe area, so the rule that will work for you is probably "...you can do anything you want, so long as you stay in town."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the tip! I usually deal with shopping etc. in the 45 minutes or so before the session starts, when everyone is still chatting. The West Marches can't quite accommodate exactly what you're suggesting (encounters in town), as the town is meant to be (almost) entirely safe - adventure is found in the wilderness. But I'll definitely have to think about what I could give players to do between sessions... \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jan 7 '18 at 0:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a surprisingly simple and effective trick. I had a similar problem running Ars Magica and had I thought of this I may have kept the game going longer... \$\endgroup\$ – JP Chapleau Jan 10 '18 at 16:45
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I have run several West Marches style games through the years, and I've learned a lot about both what to do and what not to do. Some of what is below you've already touched on, but for the sake of completeness I want to hit everything.

This style of game-play is made easier if the following is true:

  • Your players (and subsequently their characters) are motivated to go out into the world and risk dangerous situations.
  • Your players have a sense of competitiveness, and they can accept (and are motivated by) other characters being more or less powerful, wealthy, kitted out than they are.
  • For a rotating cast of characters, they are content to work with items they find as opposed to planning specific things built around specific items (less an issue in AD&D and in my limited experience with 5e).
  • Your players don't have a drive to get into politics or take over the neutral ground, be that the somewhat clichéd single tavern or adventurer's guild, or an entire settlement, or whatever neutral ground you have.
  • Your players don't mind record keeping, as this style of game requires more player record keeping and budgeting than other styles.

For an open, exploration style of game, note taking and information sharing between players/characters (present and not) has worked better for me when it is a player driven activity.

Player action and perception can be used as a driving force for exploration and competitiveness, and the DM doing the work of summarizing and information sharing removes this reflection (and chance for interactions) from the players. The same goes for DM driven recaps at session starts, with an exception being points of rules clarifications that may have come up or other corrections based on DM changes or errors.

The other concept that I've found to be helpful (and a shift from 3.0e, 3.5e, Pathfinder, and 4e philosophies) is things players encounter should be as much a challenge to the players, or more, as it is a challenge to the characters. This is something that players need to understand and be on board with.

Challenging the players means mysteries and strange things that need to be figured out by the players, not with a dice roll. Strange objects, unique places, weird not-by-the-book monsters, and enemies that require interaction and challenges that need experimentation instead of a die roll. Including hints at future things that are a spark for imagination and excitement will build player engagement and a drive to get out and explore (for players that enjoy it).

That all being said, and to build to the answer to the non-general question, which starts with a challenge to one of the ideas behind your question:

Don't worry about too much time being taken up between sessions.

There will be records keeping that is best done between sessions (as it can be boring and usually is single player focused). Time taken for this can vary, but this is time better spent not during the game session.

If record keeping and rules questions have to be done at the game for one reason or another, set a timer and limit how long this takes up. In the more open sections of my current game, there is usually a 25 minute limit to all the non-game work that needs to be done once the session officially starts. Rules questions, record keeping, spending experience/leveling and so forth is limited to this time, and I do my best to redirect any rules questions or record keeping to this window.

Past that, let/force them have the level of engagement that they want. Being competitive helps. A drive to find new things (the player-challenging as much as character-challenging) helps. Capital-M Mystery, things that can't be explained yet, open questions, and any other things they can discuss and look forward to will help build engagement.

This style of game can be really fun, but it is not for every group. Players who want more linear storytelling, or guided story-driven (rather than player/exploration driven) play can (and in my experience, will) become bored and frustrated.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Using mysteries to give players something to talk about between sessions is a really good idea! \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jan 12 '18 at 17:29
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I am and have been a player in multiple games across several systems (including D&D 5e) that adopted aspects of West Marches style, either by design or by necessity as players' availability schedules changed over time, where players maintained interest and interaction between sessions.

Disclaimers: Of the games I have been in, only one had a larger player count than 8, and that was more of an AL style or living world game with several dozen players and multiple GMs. Additionally, I have never personally GMed such a game. Nonetheless, I believe this answer should be applicable at nearly any player count, as I have seen it used successfully by others at both lower and higher numbers.

All the relevant games I have been in have been run entirely online. Roll20 is used when a map and "official" dice roller are required, such as in combat or exploration, but most other activity happens in the game's Discord server.

Discord provides both voice and text chat, with desktop, mobile, and web applications, so it's pretty easy to access wherever you are, to the point of people chiming in on conversations during bathroom breaks. Impromptu "in-town" roleplaying as well as out-of-character discussions can and do happen at a moment's notice between whoever happens to be available at the time.

Curious people will naturally ask questions about other people's sessions, the "chatroom" format makes it easy to post quick and short responses, and everyone online at the moment can see and participate in the conversation. Add a GM and a few enthusiastic players occasionally posting bits of lore, interesting spells or monsters that might show up, observations about characters and the world, asking and answering all manner of questions, or people doing play-by-post downtime stuff in their characters' channels, and it ends up being pretty active between sessions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A chat for the group is certainly useful, but I'm afraid I already have one, and although the players use it for organisation, and chatting immediately after games, it's pretty inactive at other times. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jan 10 '18 at 18:39

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