There are a few questions on this site that mention "West Marches", but they all seem to assume that a reader already knows exactly what a "West Marches" game is. Some questions link to multiple blog posts, some questions link to a different site and some just mention the original blog post, even if there are multiple blog posts about the topic.

These differences leaves me wondering what the definition of a "West Marches game" is.

Is there a precise list of things that make a campaign a "West Marches" campaign? Is it the list at the beginning of the original blog post “Grand Experiments: West Marches”* or are there additional things that a gamer would typically associate with "West Marches"? Does "West Marches" simply mean "example of a sandbox game where people can do what they want instead of following an adventure book"? Is it about the setting of "going west until the border of society is reached and players have to fight their way through the unexplored wilderness"? Is it a combination of these things or is there more to the term?

All of my questions boil down to: What defines a "West Marches" campaign?


* The list of things from the original blog post:

1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.

2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.

3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – mxyzplk Apr 19 at 2:13
up vote 27 down vote accepted

You're right, these three things are key to a true West Marches campaign:

1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.

2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.

3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

Ben Robbins, whose blog you quoted, should know, he popularised the concept!

There is a bit more to it though...

Implied, but not explicit in those first three points:

  1. Every game session begins and ends at the same point of origin (normally a home town). This means:

    • Every session can be entirely self contained (the new session will always represent a completely new foray, out from the base, into the wilderness, even if coincidentally the party is exactly the same as last time, and want to resume a similar pursuit.
    • Players don't have to spontaneously appear in unnarratively satisfying ways when needed.
    • In later adventures, as travel times increase away from that point of origin, the act of travelling itself is more likely to be handwaved / skipped over.
  2. The players decide where to go and what to do in advance.

    • Yes, it's a sandbox, but the players must decide what they would like to do in advance of the session. Normally, as part of booking the DM's time for the session the players would also state what they wanted to do in that session. This way the DM can prepare in advance, without needing to prepare the whole world, or improvise large peices of content.

Outside of those first three points:

  1. Session reports are always shared

    • 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 write up session reports and distribute them to each other. It's a living world, the same goblin warlord cannot be killed by two different groups, so the second group that wanted to try needs to know if the first succeeded or not.
    • New quest hooks can be picked up by any group of players.
  2. There is a shared world map, that's potentially unreliable

    • All initial objectives and later objectives that are discovered are marked on a shared map, which players can use to suggest placed they want to explore.

    • The initial map is produced in-game by a character and is only as reliable as that characters map-making abilities / trustworthiness. It is later edited by the players who may also make mistakes. This means it's possible to get lost, if the map is wrong (and the players can subsequently correct it).

  3. Competition between players is actively encouraged

    • Jealousy is considered to be a useful motivational force in getting sessions booked and games actually played. If anyone else can pick up from the interesting place where you last left off, or someone else has discovered something exciting, then that motivates you to prioritise organising your next session. Especially when magic items are on the line.
  4. Content is loosely tiered

    • Players started at a low level and would meet on average higher levels of danger the further they ventured outside of town. This meant players could largely assess whether a threat was likely to be appropriate or not.
    • Significantly stronger threats in low level areas were normally well sign posted. Having pockets of more difficut enemies made the world more exciting, more diverse and incentivized PC's returning to earlier explored areas later, when they were stronger.

Matt Colville made a great video that covers all of this in detail, if you don't fancy reading all of Ben Robbins blogs.

However, when someone says they are running a "West Marches style" campaign they may often mean something much looser than this:

The only conclusive way to know what someone else really means when they say they're running a "West Marches style" campaign is to ask them.

That said, at a bare minimum it is likely that these things are implied:

  1. They don't have a regular group of players, but pull from a larger pool each session.

  2. Each session will be entirely self contained.

  3. There's probably a focus on exploration.

  • Hmm, I don't know about that session encapsulation via shared town you have to be in. Most of the ones I've played in just note where people are at the end of sessions and things do get narratively wonky. Or require a downtime activity at the end of each session. But only once 'you end each session in this town here'. – the dark wanderer Apr 18 at 21:18
  • 3
    @thedarkwanderer Fair enough if that hasn't been your experience, but I think I stand by it being one of the more common aspects of a "West Marches style" campaign. It doesn't have to be a town of course. The campaign I'm running uses a boat in unchartered seas as the point of origin, with the PCs all on board and making up different landing parties. – Tiggerous Apr 18 at 22:02

Like Roguelikes or GTA-likes, West-Marches-Style games are of a genre fashioned after a particular semi-eponymous classic exemplar, in this case this home game.

Like those other founding-work-based-genres, there aren't so much hard-and-fast rules that define the boundaries of the term, but rather the closer a given game is to that progenitor or other famous associated material the more 'West-Marches-Style' it is, and the more you can safely use that term without fear of misleading people or triggering grognard rage.

There are, however, some general traits that are expected with varying degrees of strength in such games. I will provide some below, divided between traits that are more of a 'you must do this' and traits that are more of a 'this is what normal is'.

Musts:

  • The players organize the adventures, determining where to go and what to do as a party. The DM, after initial prep work, merely reacts to player choices.
  • Parties are fluid and there's more than one group of players in the world.
  • Acting contrary to the interests and/or plans of another player is allowed. In fact, players may well end up engaged in hostilities without ever knowing their opponent was a player.
  • There's a big, sprawling map with lots of empty space but also lots of stuff to do. Players stay on the map.
  • There is an active meta-game around players forming parties and deciding when to do what in real-life.
  • The world evolves over real-time, which affects even PCs not involved in activities. Balancing different real-life availabilities in players is a common problem.

Normally:

  • There are very few, if any, major non-villan NPCs. NPCs exist as a resource, and do not engage in the sort of emotional character drama one might expect from, for example, a game of Polaris or Vampire: The Masquerade. Intrigue is not unusual, but it's limited to large-scale political interactions and responses to player action; there is no tangled mess of emotions and history and identity behind most NPCs.
  • The game is, broadly speaking, a wilderness campaign. You are outside, by default, not in a dungeon. There are dungeons, to be sure, but they are places you organize expeditions to and then do stuff and then leave; the campaign does not include a Megadungeon and people don't spend that much time in dungeon-y environments, usually.
  • The game takes place on the edges of civilization. There are settlements you can visit, but not that many that are big. There aren't that many non-hostile people, and the PCs are a significant (e.g. 1%) portion of the population.
  • The DM does not tailor adventures to players. The DM creates most of the world beforehand, with a list of notable features or something, then just describes the world to the players as it happens. Players make characters, decide what they want to do, and then do that.
  • Players don't necessarily fit in with the world, but that's okay because the world is big and the part we are in is small and the PCs probably came from Elsewhere seeking adventure.
  • Player characters can engage other player characters in combat, which is either a big deal when it happens or more or less the entire point of the game (depending on whether your West-Marches-Style is closer to Blackmoor or the West Marches campaign).

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