D&D 5E West Marches Campaign Debrief

See the Google Drive folder for game materials and templates


From August 2017 to June 2019, I ran a West Marches (WM) campaign using Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) 5th edition (5E) as a brand-new Dungeon Master (DM). Overall, I think the campaign was a blast, and I definitely learned a lot about DMing, roleplaying, 5E, and what I want to get out of tabletop games. In this debrief I’ll go over the resources I used to run it and discuss what I think worked well and what worked poorly. This debrief would be most useful for DMs considering running a 5E West Marches game, or people designing a WM hack or standalone game.

If you haven’t heard of it, WM is a style of play where you have a large group of players and one or more DMs. Games are scheduled ad hoc and usually include 3-5 players plus the DM. The fictional conceit is that all the PCs live in a town and adventure out into the dangerous wilderness. The rule everyone follows to make the scheduling setup work is that all adventuring is outside town and every party must return to town at the end of each session. This allows each session to have a different roster of players.

We had a total of 19 players participate, with a core group of about 9 people who played regularly. I was the sole DM until August 2018, at which point I was having trouble running a game every week, so one player volunteered to co-DM. We played 61 sessions.

Why the West Marches?

I am a lifelong nerd but only played D&D a few times briefly as a kid. I think it might have been a 3.5 starter set? There wasn’t a big Player’s Handbook, I remember that much. Then in 2016, after listening to Acquisitions Incorporated and wanting to play, I got a game going with my wife and friends. I was a player in about ¼ of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but after one player moved and a PC died, the group was starting to lose interest. I wanted to play more, so I started planning my own campaign.

I first heard about the West Marches from Adam Koebel on his Office Hours stream. After that I listened to Steven Lumpkin run a West Marches campaign stream on RollPlay, and that made me want to run one. I toyed with the idea of running my own traditional campaign with a fixed player group, but after my previous experience, I wanted a low barrier to entry with a large player base to make scheduling easier and involve more people. Many of my friends are nerdy, but don’t play RPGs, so I also saw this as a great opportunity to recruit more people to play with! The West Marches was ideal for that. In the end, about half the players were brand new (or very new) to RPGs.

Campaign Organization

West Marches Style

I followed the basic idea for the West Marches as proposed by Ben Robbins. I had difficulty getting the players to take an active role in scheduling. This only really started to happen about 5 months in when we had a good group of core players who were motivated to play again. Before that I was mostly scheduling the games.

At first we used a Google Group where I would keep a post updated with my availability and players would post to organize games. Using this method we played about once a month, then once every two weeks, for the first 5 months.

Then we switched to using a Discord server, since the constant emails and lack of easy separation of threads was getting annoying. We lost a few players in the switch, for whom the jump was enough of a barrier to drop out. But it was worth it in the end. By the end we had many channels tracking different aspects of the game, like #general, #scheduling, #mission-planning, #achievements, etc.

With Discord, we had a lot more chatter and ended up playing nearly weekly until about a year in, when I stepped back to a game every other week due to time commitments and one of the players became a co-DM and ran the game on opposite weeks.

System and Custom Rules

I allowed players to build characters with any content from 5E books published by Wizards. I allowed Unearthed Arcana content with my permission so I could look at it first to see if it was overpowered. This worked out fine.

I also included a number of custom rules to focus on the West Marches experience. I’ll give an overview of the rules I used, based heavily on Steven and Kashain’s rules (links below). For details, refer to my custom rules document.

Hex Map Sandbox

The West Marches town of Yarhaven and surrounds.
The West Marches town of Yarhaven and surrounds.

I ran West Marches as more of a sandbox than a strict hexcrawl. I made a huge 200 by 200 hex map in Hexographer, using 6 mile hexes. The hex map was divided into biome regions (e.g. The Gloomy Woods, the Vasati Plains) and each region was linked to random encounter tables. Each region also had a CR rating for average encounters, and CR increased the further you got from town. These together handled the exploration aspect of play, and then I prepped adventures and dungeons scattered around the map. I used the full map to get some idea of where areas outside the West Marches were located, and then filled in details for areas within 15 hexes of Yarhaven, the starting town.

I seeded each region with at least one interesting landmark. These ranged from full-fledged dungeons to smaller landmarks or puzzling places with information about the world to discover. Dungeons tended to be at or slightly above their region CR, but some areas followed Ben’s advice to have difficulty spikes, either for the entire dungeon or parts of it.

I also prepared a number of quests with seeds in town that led out to different places in the West Marches. These stemmed from people willing to pay adventurers for tasks to simple rumors of locations and activities in the wilds. I prepared these in a single huge Google Doc (to aid searching) with varying levels of detail depending on my needs; some were mapped, some were not; some had extensive details, some were more sketches with ideas for improvising. Earlier in the game these were much more fleshed out, with less detail as I got more comfortable prepping only what was needed. The quest board in the player spreadsheets was updated after each session, with notes added if they were not completed, or quests moved to the completed section if accomplished. If a quest sat for a while, it would be updated with urgency, it’s impact heightened, or removed and saved for re-skinning later.

Random Encounters

Every watch (4 hours) travelling outside town, the Navigator PC rolls 1d100. On 1-89 nothing happens; on 90-95, there is a non-violent encounter; on 96-99, a violent encounter; and on a 100, something weird happens. I labelled hex map regions and made a 2d6 violent random encounter table for each region in my spreadsheet, with a probability distribution tied to encounter CR. I assigned regions a terrain type and tied that to a 1d100 non-violent random encounter table for each region. These included NPC and wildlife encounters, moral quandaries, simple observations of the terrain, relatively major landmarks like ruins, waterfalls, standing stones, etc., all culled from internet sources and lightly modified. I also made a shorter 1d6 Weird table for each terrain type with a very strange, calamitous, or beneficial random event.

Player Roles

PCs choose roles: Navigator, Scout, Scribe, Quartermaster, and Cartographer. The aforementioned Navigator also rolled Survival to navigate if the path wasn’t known or clear. The Scout would be the one to roll Perception to spot things while travelling (assuming the others had jobs precluding being on alert at all times). The Scribe wrote the session summary in return for an extra downtime action next time they played. The Quartermaster tracked expended resources (e.g., rations) and accumulated treasure. The Cartographer tracked any areas added to the map and made the edits to the player map after the game (usually with my help).


In all of these pieces I tried to make direct or indirect links to the large-scale events happening in the region. For these I used the format (though not rules) of Fronts from Dungeon World (which themselves are hacked from Apocalypse World). I started with four, created following the Dungeon World template. Most adventures were directly linked to these fronts, while random encounters and locations were often more tangential.

After every session I updated my fronts. If PCs worked against a front, I might stop it progressing temporarily or change its course. If they didn’t act against the front, I advanced at least one front per session. Some of these events were significant enough to warrant news reaching town, or affecting my prep directly (e.g. the PCs didn’t defeat the zombies on the Dusk Moors, so they all successfully moved to the lost city of K’thorr to serve their necromancer master). You can see my original and ending fronts.

Downtime Actions

The other major rules addition was stricter rules for downtime than those contained in the official 5E books. At the start of every session, each returning character had one downtime action to expend to work for gold, research something at the town library, or otherwise pursue their personal goals or prepare for returning to the wilds. Each action roughly corresponded to an institution in town, e.g. the tavern for carousing or the library for research.

One action allowed PCs to spend gold (or special magical items called Astral Shards) to upgrade town buildings. These upgrades improved the downtime actions. Upgrading the Monument of Heroes allowed the PC to have a statue of themselves erected, and improved the overall prosperity of the town, thereby attracting higher quality adventurers. This meant that when a player made a new character, they would start at a higher level. This mechanic introduces a rising floor that tries to preserve a degree of level balance within parties.

I made these rules before Xanathar’s updated downtime rules came out. I added some of those in, but future hacks could try just using Xanathar’s rules and adding the ‘level floor’ mechanic somehow.


To encourage players to choose a task and stick to it, the party has the option of setting a goal at the start of every session, to be accomplished in that session. I allowed it to be relatively general, e.g. “Explore the tomb on the Dusk Moors,” but they had to do that thing to get the XP. The XP was set to an Easy, Medium, or Hard encounter at their level depending on its difficulty. If they accomplished one, they could set another.


I love the idea from Ben’s game about using a shared physical player map that represents a map carved into a table at the adventurers’ tavern. At first we used a map drawn on a large sheet of paper as recommended by Ben. That was super fun, but eventually we started playing at different locations, and wanting to see it between sessions, and I didn’t feel like dragging it around with me or scanning it.

So, I made a digital version. Miro works really well for this. I imagine Roll20 would work well also, but since few in my group use it, I didn’t want to require them to sign up. You can draw a nice map, including using icons from IconFinder that work really well, and you can use frames for regions and add comments if desired. I also started tracking the seasons and common images and iconography in-game for players to refer to.

5E Rules Changes

Wanderer Background Modification

The only real modification to the 5E rules I made was to rewrite the Wanderer background, since it granted an unfair advantage in an exploration-based game (italics show changes):

You have an excellent memory for maps and geography, and you can recall the general layout of terrain, settlements, and other landmarks you have already visited, granting you advantage on any Wisdom (Survival) rolls to navigate there. In addition, if you travel at a Slow pace, you can find food and fresh water for yourself and up to five other people each day, provided that the land offers berries, small game, water, and so forth.


It is not realistic for a GM to effectively track all Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds & Flaws for every character in a West Marches game. Even my players quickly forgot those as they just played their character to certain ingrained ideas of how they would behave. So, I just gave out inspiration as a reward for good roleplaying, for taking risks, and for doing cool stuff. I encouraged players to argue for inspiration for themselves and others, and they did that a little bit, but as I’ve heard with most groups, we mostly just forgot about it until someone was rolling death saves! I found using physical tokens to track Inspiration was a good reminder.


I read the following resources to inform how I would run the game:

I used the following resources regularly to look up game information or to aid with prep:


I prepped a ton for this game. I spent probably 5 hours a week for 6 months prepping in my free time before we even played. You could certainly run a WM game with less. I think taking a strict hexcrawl approach would be easier, instead of the sandbox style that I used; more on that later.

I used the following material to run the game:


I didn’t want to run a WM game in the Forgotten Realms. I’m not a huge fan of the setting, and I felt that trying to learn someone else’s setting would be harder than just using my own, which I could have the final say on and build as I went. I did keep the races and pantheon so that pretty much everything in the Player’s Handbook would be valid.

I didn’t think too hard about my setting. Because I knew I’d have many players new to roleplaying and to some degree even to fantasy beyond LotR and Harry Potter, I decided to stick to a relatively vanilla fantasy setting. Thematically, I wanted to emphasize the original goals of the WM: a dangerous world on the edge of civilization. I came up with three major eastern civilizations that were all settling the WM, themed roughly on fantasy versions of the Hanseatic League, ancient Persia/Byzantium, and ancient Egypt. One civilization made up the primary settlers of the WM and the other two mostly just had economic interest in trade in the area. I also created a fallen ancient civilization farther to the west, because I have always liked fantasy that involved uncovering ancient secrets and technology. Then I set up a few fronts inspired by classic fantasy tropes and the Dungeon World options. I built out organizations and details as we played.

What Worked Well

What Worked Poorly

Top Tips

  1. Maybe try a different system? Dungeon World could maybe work. Maybe Adam and Steven (or you!) will actually make a WM standalone game or full 5E hack?
  2. Listen to player interests and build things for their character
  3. Leave player and world backstory to a minimum so you can fill in the details in play, collaboratively world build
  4. Either use only Deadly encounters or change how XP is rewarded
  5. Be clear from the start that players schedule the games. Keep your availability up-to-date and be clear about your expectations for game length, location, and frequency.
  6. Use your preparation and the rules to disclaim responsibility. If there is a dragon there, there is a dragon there. If the players want to spend 2 hours roleplaying in town and doing downtime actions, that is their choice, just have fun with it.
  7. Set up a Discord. Share everything you can with players. Consider suggesting players use a wiki.

What Next?

After running 5E for this extended campaign I learned a lot about what it is good for. It is great for letting players build crunchy characters, for tactical combat, and dungeon crawling, but it’s not that great for much else. I knew in advance that D&D should be about killing monsters and getting money, so I did design the game with that in mind. But I also saw players wanting to roleplay not being rewarded by the system beyond Inspiration, I found overland travel could become tedious, I found it just takes forever to DO anything because of the number of checks required, and I found that the binary success/failure system of just trying to hit a DC didn’t naturally propel the conflict or drama.

So, now I want to run other games to explore different stories and systems. I am most interested in trying out/playing more Powered by the Apocalypse games, potentially Apocalypse World 2nd edition, Blades in the Dark, Dogs in the Vineyard, Torchbearer, Mouseguard, Fiasco, The Quiet Year, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Signs, a bunch of stuff!


I didn’t track kills per player - this is from total party kills for the sessions I have that recorded.

Header image: Kroom Magistrate Crest from the campaign