Anatomy of a D&D Campaign: Building a Campaign With a West Marches Ethos

Anatomy of a D&D Campaign is a periodic look at the planning of Dungeons & Dragons sessions. We will dig a little deeper into technical elements, with discussions about encounter design, crafting unique monsters, and handling unique challenges that come up at the table.

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Exploration. Danger. Unlimited player choice. These are some of the core concepts of the "West Marches" style of campaign, a type of Dungeons & Dragons campaign built almost around episodic hexcrawl exploration. Ben Robbins first detailed the "West Marches" campaign style in a series of blog posts back in 2007, where he laid out the basic precepts of one of his older campaigns. The West Marches focused around a large pool of players forming rotating parties to explore the West Marches, a previously unexplored area that was built in advance by the DM. The players decided where they wanted to go, what they wanted to do there, and when they should play, leaving the DM solely in control of managing encounters that were already at least somewhat pre-populated before the start of the campaign.

There are a lot of appealing features to a West Marches-style of campaign. The campaign focuses on exploration (a part of Dungeons & Dragons often neglected in modern campaigns) and requires more strategic thinking and forethought than more plot-heavy campaigns. There's a higher degree of danger in West Marches-style campaigns because the players might stumble across a dungeon that they're ill-equipped to handle or find a monster lair that's far above their level. If you're a player, it offers a lot more flexibility, as players only have to participate in the adventures they want instead of being prepared to make a weekly commitment. In the end, the West Marches offers a different type of Dungeons & Dragons experience, one that especially appeals to players tired of plot-heavy campaigns.

The very nature of the West Marches makes it a difficult campaign to organize, which is probably why it's not more popular or well-known outside of certain corners of the Internet. It requires a heavy time commitment from the DM (as they need to basically build a world from scratch in advance, and then be ready to run any number of adventures based on the players' whims), a large number of players, and a certain amount of buy-in from everyone about what they're about to get into. However, while you might not have the time to build an entire West Marches campaign, you can still incorporate its ethos into your own Dungeons & Dragons game to give it a decidedly different feel.

Earlier this year, I tentatively made plans to organize a West Marches-style campaign, as my previous campaign was wrapping up and two of my players had busy summer schedules. Running the West Marches would allow those players to come and go based on their availability and would also allow me to open up my game to many of my other friends that expressed an interest in joining the table. All of my players bought into the idea of an exploration-heavy campaign filled with danger, and I started to build out my world, which I named the Outlands.

Less than a week after I started building the Outlands, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and suddenly my entire D&D group found themselves at home with no plans for the rest of the summer. I decided to modify my West Marches campaign to focus on one group of adventurers, with the option of opening it up to more players once the world opened up and things went back to some level of normal. Shifting from a pool of players to one single group of adventurers meant making a few changes, but I was able to keep the "spirit" of the West Marches by implementing a few guidelines in the campaign.

First and foremost is that The Players Make the Decisions. At the beginning of each week, I ask my players to pick where they want to go next and give them a hard deadline so that I have enough time to prepare. We have a Google Doc filled with current quests and plotlines, and it's ultimately up to the players to decide what they want to do next. Some weeks, they want to pursue "main" storylines like fighting a dangerous Goblin King's forces or exploring the secrets of the militant elf society who abandoned the land just a few years prior to the campaign. Other times, they pick a hex and go there to see what they can see. A few times, they've even returned to areas they've previously travelled through to explore an interesting ruin or landmark that they found during their previous session. Putting the decision-making in the hands of the players ultimately allows them to pick and choose what they feel is interesting, which maximizes their engagement with the storyline and also lets the DM focus on other aspects of the game.

Our second guideline is that Every Session Stands Alone. While we haven't had a single player miss a session yet, each adventure starts and ends at the Party's Outpost. This gives the game an episodic feel, but also helps the players remember certain key lore elements and keeps them from getting overwhelmed by options. While there are running storylines that link together many of the sessions, making every session a one-shot helps to keep the games manageable for the DM while also providing players with information in bite-sized chunks that seem to be easier for them to remember. My players are actually crafting theories about mysteries and lore, and are keeping track of the different regions on their own, which is a big change of pace from past campaigns where it felt like I (as the DM) was having to remind the players of major plot points and details on a regular basis.

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The final major guideline is that The World is Dangerous. While the initial 19 hexes that the players are exploring are mostly geared towards Tier 1 characters (AKA Level 1 to Level 5 characters), there are encounters meant to be too challenging for the party. Players have found evidence of coral drakes and corpse flowers in different parts of the woods, and they even found a Purple Worm wyrmling locked behind a hefty door at some point. Figuring out what is safe and what is not is part of the exploration process of the campaign. Over the last two months, they've learned that a single Bee-Person can take down a party member with a single shot of its projectile stinger and that traveling near the Bleeding Willow is more dangerous than passing through the rest of the Wally Woods. They decided to avoid a Needle Lord that was roaming through the woods, but picked a fight with Sahuagin raiding a crab folk sand castle along the Vermillion Beach. No one has died yet, but the knowledge that the world isn't holding back is enough for the players to approach every session with a level of caution that I haven't seen in one of my D&D games in years.

Adopting some elements of the West Marches has really invigorated my weekly Dungeons & Dragons game. This style of game isn't for everyone, but it is different enough from the usual campaign to make it feel like an entirely different game, despite the fact that it uses the same rules. Over the next few weeks, we'll go over some of the other elements I've added to my Outlands campaign to really make it stand out. In the meantime, feel free to reach out at @CHofferCBus if you want to discuss this very unique style of D&D campaign!

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