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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…