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Dirty Jobs: An Urban ‘West Marches’ Campaign

If you’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for any reasonable length of time, you may well have heard the enigmatic phrase ‘West Marches Campaign’ dropped into your D&D discourse.

What is a West Marches Campaign?

West Marches was the solution of Dungeon Master (and game designer) Ben Robbins to the age-old issue of RPG scheduling problems: one that successfully enabled him to play D&D more regularly by pulling together a large pool of players and empowering whoever was available that week to talk amongst themselves and set a date for game night.

His logic was that there were always enough folks around to play, but they might not be the same people every week. And so rather than try to find a date that suited everybody, as long as a some of those bodies could reach a consensus then it was game on.

Once the session was arranged, Robbins’ had both the incentive, and a deadline, to get the prep done.

Scheduling problems have become a meme in D&D circles…

As it was often a different line up of players attending each week, another defining feature of his West Marches campaign was that each session should be a self-contained adventure that started and ended in geographically the same place. In this way, a character could miss a session but be in the right place to join the next adventure… so there was no need for the immersion-breaking device of characters blinking in and out of existence mid-story.

The actual name ‘West Marches’ came from the fantasy region that Robbins created of the same name. A dangerous wilderness full of ruins to explore and treasures to be found. The campaign ran as an exploration sandbox, with players setting out from their home base (a frontier town) on raids and sorties that would end back at the same town.

Exploring dangerous ruins was a key part of West Marches gameplay (image: WOTC).

West Marches In the Words of Its Creator….

Here you can find West Marches explained by Robbins himself, on his own blog:

West Marches was a game I ran for a little over two years. It was designed to be pretty much the diametric opposite of the normal weekly game:

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.

My motivation in setting things up this way was to overcome player apathy and mindless “plot following” by putting the players in charge of both scheduling and what they did in-game.

A secondary goal was to make the schedule adapt to the complex lives of adults. Ad hoc scheduling and a flexible roster meant (ideally) people got to play when they could but didn’t hold up the game for everyone else if they couldn’t. If you can play once a week, that’s fine. If you can only play once a month, that’s fine too.

Letting the players decide where to go was also intended to nip DM procrastination (aka my procrastination) in the bud. Normally a DM just puts off running a game until he’s 100% ready (which is sometimes never), but with this arrangement if some players wanted to raid the Sunken Fort this weekend I had to hurry up and finish it. It was gaming on-demand, so the players created deadlines for me.

Later in the blog post, Robbins adds a couple more rules for running a West Marches campaign.

The only hard scheduling rules are:

1) The GM has to be available that day (obviously) so this system only works if the GM is pretty flexible.

2) The players have to tell the GM where they plan on going well in advance, so he (meaning me) has at least a chance to prepare anything that’s missing. As the campaign goes on this becomes less and less of a problem, because so many areas are so fleshed out the PCs can go just about anywhere on the map and hit adventure. The GM can also veto a plan that sounds completely boring and not worth a game session.

All other decisions are up to the players — they fight it out among themselves, sometimes literally.

Matt Colville helped bring the West Marches concept to a new gen. of gamers…

West Marches As a Solution to Scheduling Issues

Anyhow, around a year ago, I was facing similar problems to Ben Robbins. My regular, in-person D&D group had dissolved, as one of the DMs had left Barcelona and another two members had a waning appetite for D&D (we’ve since reformed as an online group, playing Mothership… more on that another time!). And, while I was still playing in various online D&D campaigns, I was really missing the thrill of dice, beers, crisps and character sheets strewn messily around a table. In short, I was desperate to play in person, but I was missing a group…

A session on the terrace is worth two on a VTT….

In theory, I knew more people than ever in Barcelona who liked Dungeons & Dragons. On top of the remnants of my old group, I’d made friends with a DM who found me via this very blog (hi Steve!), two colleagues in the travel industry were trying to get a group together, various friends, and friends of friends, had told me they were interested in the hobby (I had run the Price of Beauty, from Candlekeep Mysteries for a couple of them)… hell, even my hairdresser turns out to be a massive fan of the game.

Combined, this was a lot of people, but a disparate bunch, many of them strangers to one another. Furthermore, few, if any, of them were biting my hand off to get a campaign started. I feared that trying to handpick a group of 4-5 players from this motley crew and shepherd them into a regular time slot would be a frustrating waste of time, given that folks in Barcelona tend to enjoy expansive social lives (i.e. have better things to do than play RPGs) and often piss off travelling for weeks or months on end (bringing campaigns grinding to a halt).

So instead, I decided to throw pretty much every potential player I knew at the time into one Whatsapp group and go from there.

In essence, I decided to run a West Marches style campaign…

Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs (My Take On West Marches)

…albeit with a couple of differences. Here is how I tweaked the West Marches concept to fit my needs.

1. DM Shares Their Availability via Spreadsheet

Firstly, I don’t have the kind of availability that would allow the players to schedule the session, so rather I would post in the group some upcoming times / dates when I could play, and as long as four players signed up it was game on! I decided to create a spreadsheet calendar where folks can quickly select, YES, NO, Probably or Maybe as their availability for any given night. Using this method I can normally schedule a game in just a handful of Whatsapp messages, which I consider a low administrative burden.

A shared availability spreadsheet makes scheduling easy….

2. DM Prepares Adventure

Secondly, while (nearly) every Dirty Jobs session would be a one shot, unlike West Marches, the content would be a DM prepared scenario to ensure that each session would be punchy, fun and have plenty of drama, and was something I was excited about running.

While this has meant occasionally shooting down a player idea (one that I don’t think I can turn into a fun 4 hour session), on the other hand, I’ve been constantly dangled hooks in front of them and they have the autonomy of choosing which to follow up on. So it hasn’t felt like a campaign rigourously strapped to the rails, and many of the sessions have been prepared according to player decisions and the consequences of their actions.

3. It’s An Urban Campaign

Obviously my campaign wouldn’t be taking place in West Marches (as far as I know this setting was never published), but rather in Waterdeep.

For me, cities are the perfect place to run episodic campaigns, as there are no long journeys to deal with, just pockets of trouble that can flare up in the vicinity and be dealt with in a crisp 3.5 to 4 hours. These pockets could be mini dungeons in and around the city, they could be dealing with criminal gangs and malicious cults, getting immersed in politics and social intrigue (attending balls, festivals etc.), heisting dangerous locations, and just about any other type of quest you can think of.

Cities offer infinite session ideas

Waterdeep was an obvious choice of city for me, as I had all the great material from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and various Dragon Heist supplements, like City Encounters, I had an Internet full of lore to draw from, and I was even able to mine scores of adventure hooks from the Quest Cards of the Lords of Waterdeep board game.

4. It’s Episodic, but Still Epic…

If Ben Robbins wanted to get away from plot-driven campaigns, I was very keen to do the opposite and include epic overarching storylines that bridged the one shot missions. I wanted the players to be immersed in a bigger world that kept turning away from the glare of the cameras that focused on their own characters. As they go around solving local problems, appropriate to their level and hero status, the political and criminal cogs of Waterdeep keep turning, sometimes bringing the PCs on a collision course with powerful factions, at other times simply reminding them that the larger world exists, while building suspense towards bigger storylines.

For that reason, before kicking off the campaign, I wrote down a list of potential Waterdeep antagonists for the players to butt up against, starting with the superb villains from Dragon Heist, but also adding militant clergy, dogmatic anarchists, corrupt politicians, devil-worshipping casino owners and amoral exotic beast merchants into the mix. For each of these villains I created short and long term goals: thwarting their short term objectives has created scores of session ideas, and since these short terms goals feed into the villain’s longer term goals these adventures also play into wider, ongoing narratives…. and I personally find this a lot more satisfying than completing quests in isolation.

5. Players are Members of an Adventurers Guild

To infuse the characters with an immediate sense of camaraderie, and also to gently steer players away from creating some w*nky misfit character that sounds great but plays terribly, I made it a premise of the campaign that all PCs belonged to an Adventurers Guild and were all at least partially motivated by financial reward.

Given that I hadn’t played with most of the folks in the group, and that some of the players were new to the game, this simple structure, and the expectations it created, helped players to avoid creating a PC that either a) is completely unsuited to adventuring or b) is completely suited to working with others.

This device also gets every session off on the right foot. The guild has been offered a new mission, and the characters of whichever players are available that week are charged with taking on the mission. It also means, as the DM, I can throw more morally questionable or just downright dangerous quests at the party… this is business after all, and the PCs are being paid to be discreet and professional, and not ask too many questions. It took me a while to come up with the name for the campaign, but when I dreamt up ‘Dirty Jobs’ it fitted like a glove.

6. Simple Levelling Up

Another feature of my Dirty Jobs campaign is a very simple levelling up system that enables me to combine characters of different levels without significant issues. Players play one session at level 1 to reach level 2, two sessions at level 2 to reach level 3, three levels 3 to reach level 4 etc. etc.. Apart from causing a bare minimum of admin, this system enables new players to join the campaign and quickly catch up with the veteran adventurers in power level as the latter are now levelling up considerably more slowly (I usually allow new players to start at level 2, so they don’t die on their first hit!).

Dirty Jobs, One Year Later…

I started playing Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs in October 2022 and I think it’s one of the most fun D&D campaigns I’ve ever taken part in, and certainly the best that I have led as the Dungeon Master.

From the original 15 people or so Whatsapp group, a smaller, more dedicated, group of 8 or so players quickly emerged, and that’s been enough to keep the campaign going for over a year, with only a slight variance in party composition week to week.

Happy players = happy DM!

Looking at my campaign notes, we’ve actually only played 16 sessions in 14 months, but that has been down to my own availability and readiness as much as anything else, as I’ve mostly been running adventures I’m designing myself as we go along. When I’ve been ready to go, excluding the summer season (when D&D is impossible in Barcelona!) and Christmas break, we’ve generally managed to meet every other week, which is ideal for me, and most of my players.

What has been very satisfying for me is combining the episodic sessions with the overarching narratives and seeing the consequences of the player actions rebound in later sessions, while it’s also been easy to wheel out some repeat antagonists from previous weeks (thanks in part to the legal considerations of being in a city… it’s harder to just kill your enemies, you have to live with them!), and also build a sense of growing menace as an authoritarian clergy slowly plot to take over Waterdeep. While this was always my aim (as discussed earlier in this article), I wasn’t sure if it was possible to pull it off, but I’m happy to report it is!

A lesson learned from a year of play is that when I’ve (accidentally) broken my own rules and had a storyline span over two sessions, is has sometimes led to a painful gap in the scheduling as we await the original party composition to be available to finish the session. Annoying, but also a great reminder of how frustrating that scenario would be as a default, and why the West Marches / Dirty Jobs structure is so much better for scheduling games than your typical D&D campaign!

Your Experiences?

Right that’s it from me…. I hope you’re all having a great Christmas break and I will be back in the New Year with some more info on Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs, including a campaign primer for DMs who might want to play out their own campaign and some of my adventures that can be played as stand alone stories or slotted into a Dirty Jobs or perhaps Dragon Heist campaign.

I would also love to know if you’ve ever DM’ed or played in a West Marches style campaign and how it went…

Let me leave you with Ben Robbin’s advice on how to run your own WM campaign, in his style, and an interesting Reddit post on lessons learnt from running such a game.

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10 Comments

  1. Rick Coen

    Happy Holidays, Duncan!

    Glad you’ve found success with this style of game. It does sound perfect as the players age into adult responsibilities (and/or parental obligations). My game runs bi-weekly, and needs 3 of 5 players to occur. It’s not bite-sized though – largely because we seem unable to have short combat encounters! So sometimes PCs are run both other players… sometimes poorly/inefficiently (“musta been that flu you were coming down with!”) and sometimes *more* efficiently (“Wait, you can fly?? How along have you been able to do *that*?”).

    These days, if only 2 players can make it on a scheduled night, we tend to just call it off. In the past, though, we used to gather anyway, and just play something else.

    • duncan

      Hey Rick

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Actually you’ve touched on another benefit of self-contained sessions. It forces me to be pretty tough on the players when it comes to time-keeping – and specifically decisions in combat scenarios. I even get an egg timer out! So we end up getting way more done that usual (which means more inter session prep for me, but overall it’s pretty satisfying to look back at the sessions and see how much we did!).

      Indeed, the times where we haven’t been able to finish are exactly when I’ve thrown a sprawling epic combat at them (eg. two waves assault of a monastery they were defending), so that is a ‘con’ of the system. Some scenarios don’t realistically fit in the 4 or 5 hrs we play.

      I also have my doubts if the structure will work so well at high levels when combat takes even longer.

      Another con I should mention of self contained sessions… spellcasters tend to start every session with full slots, making them rather OP in comparison with martials. Another reason to play around with spell slots etc., as we both discussed previously:

      https://www.hipstersanddragons.com/spellcasters-overpowered-5e-dnd/

      Happy holidays!

  2. Bob Stiegel

    Happy New Year Duncan!
    Thank you for sharing this article, you lay out a good case for flexible D&D sessions within a campaign.
    What I found interesting about this is that it is actually the way my friends originally played D&D from the beginning. I lived in Milwaukee Wisconsin and was part of a sizable wargaming group, many of which attended the early GenCon’s in Lake Geneva with Gary Gygax. We got into D&D right after it was first published in 1974. A few of us created dungeons, and the group agreed that our dungeons existed within the same world, loosely based on Middle Earth. Whenever several of us were available, we would play in one of the dungeons, with the PCs traveling to that dungeon from the site of our last game using Avalon-Hill’s Outdoors Survival game. Each player kept track of game time and location for their characters.
    This worked well for about a year, until some PCs gained too much power and magic items from the “Monty Haul” dungeons in the group. Our solution was for each DM to run their own campaign, limiting PCs to only their games. Each player usually had multiple PCs in each campaign, and we could pick up games whenever a few players and a DM were available. In most cases, we were just doing “dungeon crawls,” so there generally wasn’t an overall campaign goal other than to gain treasure and XP.
    The net effect was that one of the DMs in the group would run at least one game session each week, with somewhat different players each time. We all had fun, and there was very little stress over scheduling. Perhaps in the effort to make “better” games, we have gotten away from much of the fun of the early days of RPGs.

    • duncan

      Hi Bob

      Thanks for sharing those stories. Sound like fun times from the cradle of the RPG hobby!

      Yes, I think you might right, sometimes us DMs put too much strain on ourselves to run the ‘perfect’ game, and therefore put off being ready as well (thereby running less games). I do actually believe that great prep does pay off, but probably too many of us are sweating too many details, instead of concentrating on the core elements that will make a great session. There might well be some more posts along this topic at some point… I feel like I’m still mastering my own prep process and discovering what I need done beforehand and what I can improvise at the table.

      Thanks for stopping by…

      • Bob Stiegel

        Hi Duncan, thanks for the reply. Let me build on something you said. I was out of the hobby from the mid 1980s until 2020 when my adult daughters started playing 5e. I have been running a 5e campaign for them and their friends for over a year, in a homebrew world based in medieval Wales. I put a great deal of effort into building my world, and prepping for each weekly session. On the other hand, I broke out my 1970s-era dungeon, updated some monsters and treasure, and have run a hybrid AD&D/5e dungeon crawl for my kids when they visited for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Once I had updated the monsters, I had zero prep time to run the dungeon the last two times. We have had fun in both worlds, and I like having these two options to DM.

  3. redhawk2085

    Hi Duncan.

    I found this post through M.T. Black’s newsletter.

    I love your ideas, and have been wanting to start a campaign in Monte Cook’s Ptolus setting (with maybe an adaptation of Sly Flourish’s Grendleroot under the city), and haven’t been sure how best to do it with me and so many other potential players busy with adulting. I think your approach is what I will try. Thank you.

    I’m eager to read more about your experiences with your Dirty Jobs campaign and the adventures you DM’ed like you teased at the end of your post. Any idea when that might happen?

    Sincerely,
    James

    • duncan

      Hey James

      Oh, yes I recently started reading a little about Ptolus… sounds like a great setting with rich potential.

      The Waterdeep Dirty Jobs structure should work very well there, and it will be a big bonus if you have an underground setting that can easily serve as dungeons to drop in on.

      I’ve made some good progress on the WDJ campaign guide, which I will release for free as soon as I have also written an introductory adventure (which I will charge for).

      The adventure has been designed (in note form) and playtested, but needs a lot of polishing. Hopefully early march I will be ready to go with both. If you can’t wait until then drop me a line at the end of Jan and I should have finished WDJ campaign guide and can ping you that over email. It’s duncan@…

      Cheers!

      D.

      ps. yes I also subscribe to M.T. Black’s newsletter. It’s a great resource. I’ll drop a link here… https://www.mtblackgames.com/newsletter

  4. Ziggy Zapf

    Stopped by here while looking up advice for West Marches games, since I haven’t been in one, yet. Article looks good, and I’ll bookmark it.

    I’m thinking of recruiting players and multiple GMs for an Invisible Sun campaign along these lines. I suspect IS’s system would actually be conducive to the West Marches approach, since players will pick character arcs in order to earn experience, giving them direction and goals to pursue. They also establish bonds with other characters that provide bonuses and encourage interaction.
    The city of Satyrine has all the usual urban intrigue, and you’ve also got “wilderness” in the form of ruined sections of the cities, abandoned because they’ve got monster spawning Hate Cysts. The city government has a hefty standing reward for eliminating a Cyst, so players have a financial incentive to try.

    I’m wondering if you have any advice for helping multiple GMs coordinate their efforts.

    • duncan

      Hi Ziggy

      Thanks for stopping by. Invisible Sun sounds interesting, I wasn’t familiar with it until now… although I did play my first session of Numenera the other day.

      I don’t have any experience running campaigns with multiple GMs, or at least not switching GMs on a session by session basis, which I think it what you mean. (I’ve been in campaigns that switched GMs once or twice, but then the new GM would take over for months before another switch).

      I must say I’ve seen one or two campaigns with multiple GMs fail (from the outside, I wasn’t in the campaigns)… I think what usually happens is two or three time pressed people hope to share the time burden, but one or two don’t manage and the remaining GM(s) then grow disillusioned and also throw in the towel. I mention this not to discourage, but to let you know what you might be up against…. on paper it should work and will be fun if you manage it! Do pop back with your comments if you do succeed!

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