D&D 5E West Marches Campaign DebriefGame Summaries ·
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Ben Robbins’ original post on his West Marches game
- I referred to a lot of the resources kindly provided by Steven Lumpkin for his West Marches game. Many of these ideas appear in various forms in my maps and tables.
- I Googled and found Kashain’s wiki for his Columbus West Marches game. It appears he built some more rules for downtime and improvement on top of the work done by Steven and Adam in Steven’s game and the Hack Attacks about it. I lifted most of these rules wholesale and they worked pretty well.
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:
- Play material
- Wet erase markers
- Paizo battlemat
- Drawn on with the markers. A few times I knew what area players were going to and would pre-draw a dungeon. Most times I just drew it in the moment, either making it up for random encounters or copying from a reference map
- Didn’t use any terrain; just drew it
- Tokens to track inspiration
- Added these halfway through when I realized we weren’t using it. You can use any gaming token or poker chip.
- Custom DM board with random reference sheets
- Combat cheat sheets for new players
- Cheat sheet with custom rules tables and a template to track player and monster info all on one sheet while playing
- Initiative tracker hangers like these that we filled out and put on the screen to track turn order and so I didn’t have to ask for player AC etc.
- I took notes in my campaign notes document or a scrap piece of paper during play
- Discord for organizing games
- Preparation and reference material
- Players’ Handbook, Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and Monster Manual
- I hardly used any of these in play
- I laboriously screenshotted all the stat blocks from the MM and would just open those to run battles. Lots of upfront effort, but then could quickly pull up and switch between monsters without leafing through the book. Could be replaced by D&D Beyond or an illegal stat block site.
- Hex map
- A huge collection of reference and random tables
- Used to help with navigation and to generate random encounters
- I printed a few of them out to put in my binder for reference
- Area/dungeon maps
- Made my own with DungeonPainter and labelled in GIMP
- Drew my own on graph paper, scanned, and labelled in GIMP
- Downloaded free ones from the web and labelled in GIMP
- Some simple ones in MS Paint
- Some flowchart- or node-style maps as recommended by the Alexandrian, created using yEd Graph Editor
- In total, I made 21 and used 15 of them
- Campaign rules document
- A short document outlining the campaign rules and all the custom rules added to 5E
- Shared with the players, who could comment but not edit
- Only a few experienced players really wanted to read this; the rest were content to have me explain them as they came up
- Campaign notes document
- A huge Google Doc with the vast majority of my prep
- I had several sections, including to-do list, my own session summaries, summaries of the fronts, location-based prep, and adventure-based prep
- I created a separate campaign notes archive document, where I cut-and-pasted any content that I needed to significantly change, or an adventure that the players had completed.
- Main doc at end had 95,971 words
- Archive had 56,822 words (but a lot of repetition)
- Campaign calendar
- I used a Google Sheet to track time; template
- I used Faerun’s Calendar of Harptos
- Each session started on a specific day and I tracked days of play with short summaries
- I put in holidays and full moon days to keep track of time and seasons, special events in town
- This was needed to track days between adventures for PCs, which determined their lifestyle expenses
- Player spreadsheets
- I used Google Sheets to track character info, quest board, session summaries, shop contents in town, and town upgrades
- Players could edit most sheets, with a few reserved for the DMs
- Tavern Map
- Players’ Handbook, Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and Monster Manual
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
- Playing with a large group is fun and not as hard as I thought
- I worried about keeping characters straight, but even with players running alts I found that was not that hard. You’re limited in really diving deep in character development, but there are usually still a few memorable moments per game and some great overall arcs.
- The flexibility of scheduling is great.
- Then again, I’ve never run a small group game!
- Met new people
- The social nature and low barrier to entry of West Marches meant I got to meet friends of friends through the game.
- 5E has a great system for fun tactical combat and works ok for adventuring challenges
- Adding the constant time pressure of random encounters and limited session time to get stuff done is vital for running D&D. WM provides these tools by making every in-game hour count (the random encounter clock is always ticking) and adding real life time pressure to get as much done as possible before having to return to town/end the session.
- As a new DM I struggled a bit to make natural hazard/survival-type play fun and meaningful. I also quickly stopped tracking ammo/rations/torches and found inventory weight management boring or irrelevant once players had enough gold etc.
- Downtime actions provide a good way to do quick RP
- But I tried to take inspiration from indie RPGs to aggressively set up and end scenes to keep the game moving
- Including a mechanism for meeting random NPCs was fun and let me improve my improvisation skills. It did lead to a long list of NPCs, though! To improve this, I might add a generic ‘hook’ piece to each NPC to indicate how they fit in to the world. Some NPCs fell flat without a clear connection to the world.
- It was fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) as a DM to see players try to explore the world and piece together clues and information
- I tried and was somewhat successful in involving players in world-building. Some major elements of the fronts were changed based on player interests and all new adventures created after the initial prep played directly to player interests.
- Automatons became a major part of the fallen empire after a player made a Warforged Monk (who only actually played one session!)
- A musical competition in the Feywild and an adventure to retrieve a legendary lute were both created to cause interest and friendly competition between the two bards
- A cult of Loviatar became active in the area after a PC paladin of Ilmater began building a church in town
- Four dwarven tombs, each of which catered to a specific group of classes/PC types (rogues/monks, fighters/barbarians, magic-users, social skills)
- Player subclasses created new parts of the world (e.g. bard College of Glamour: now there is a magic school in the Feywild, he now has contacts there, etc.)
- PC interest in fighting political corruption led to the introduction of the Harpers as an organization
- But this also kind of derailed the WM-style play
- Sometimes random encounters really are awesome. Some of the best moments of the game came from rolls on random tables. I had a lot of fun figuring out how to make a table result make sense in the context of the game.
- Example: PCs went to the Feywild. I had a huge forest prepped, but they left immediately. I had little prepped outside the forest. I relied on my travel and random encounter rules. The first week was slow as they trekked across a giant snowy plain, encountering very little. But then… they came across a beautiful eladrin maiden submerged in a still pond. She was actually a witch in disguise, who they fought and killed. The next day they found a new forest, home to the witch’s coven. They travelled to it, encountering a giant tree to scout from, and a fountain of youth, before finding the remaining members of the coven. They were more interested in humiliating the party than killing them, so they challenged them to a musical competition. There you go, a super fun session all with random encounters and a new quest hook for another session that ended up being very memorable, all started from a single good random table result.
- Example: a random encounter with a wearrat nearly turned a PC into one
- Another encounter later on led that same PC to turn into a werebear, creating a new questline to cure him.
- Example: a random discovery of a cursed trident and its subsequent destruction.
- Example: one random encounter leading to a small cave entrance being discovered, another leading to an upper class elf landscape painter and his entourage being in the cavern painting bioluminescent fungi, with a fun RP encounter happening. Then this painter became a hapless recurring character in the wilds until he eventually died when his disappearance went uninvestigated by the PCs.
- Example: I rolled a random NPC contact for a player and got a halfling wizard named Brine Fane. As a wizard in town, I said she was looking for the Tomb of Jubilus Anvilstrike, a famous dwarven wizard whose tomb was already prepped and the PCs knew about it. Easy, NPC guide established. Additionally, the random name itself gave me another job for the NPC. However, during one session the player of Skrymir the cleric, who was being hunted by a religious cult worshiping the Drowned God, smirked when he heard the name. “Very clever! I see what’s going on here. Brine means salty water and fane means a temple or shrine. So, she’s a secret agent from the Cult of the Drowned God!” I was gobsmacked. The double meaning of the name hadn’t occurred to me! But guess what? Now that wizard was on a secret mission for the Drowned God and would betray Skrymir when she got the chance. The best part? Skrymir is a bit of an oaf with low intelligence and wasn’t able to recognize her name. Perfect!
What Worked Poorly
- The assumption of encounters per adventuring day in 5E does not work for a West Marches-style game
- Players will learn to use up all their resources in one or two encounters, making anything under Deadly a walk in the park, or they will save their resources but never get more than a few miles from town, getting bogged down in several low-risk, drawn out, boring random encounters.
- To address this, I ended up only running encounters above the Deadly XP threshold. Any rolls of easier difficulty on my painstakingly created random encounter tables were either beefed up on-the-fly, rolled again, or handwaved as won by the PCs and small amounts of XP dished out.
- This meant not a single player died in the first year of play, though there were a few very close calls.
- I can also chalk this up to being a new DM. I went kinda easy on them.
- This is also increasingly a problem as players level and get more and more abilities.
- Trying to fit downtime, travel, random encounters, and ‘adventure’-type play in one session felt rushed
- The combination of adventure and random encounters was fun, but the shift away from hexcrawl does exacerbate this feeling, making travel sometimes feel like a barrier instead of part of the fun.
- This model also requires more prep, but also creates more of an on-going narrative.
- In hindsight I would probably use smaller regions and prep a specific encounter or location in every hex, like a traditional hexcrawl. Once cleared they would be safer, encouraging outward expansion.
- Some kind of fictional justification for this, like a disease or magical infection that can be physically or magically removed, would help.
- We dealt with this in a few ways:
- I encouraged players to do downtime ahead of time on Discord. They didn’t usually take advantage of it. It does take the roleplaying element out.
- A player converted to DM and ran a second game that was more linear adventure-focused, didn’t use travel rules, and was very deadly. Most players used alternate characters in this game.
- I spotlighted custom rules to help avoid random encounters and if the PCs saw the monsters first, I reminded players that they could avoid the encounter or even scare them off. They rarely did!
- I considered adding a “Scouting” downtime with cost/benefit that could help reduce encounters, but never was happy with it so didn’t include it.
- The combination of adventure and random encounters was fun, but the shift away from hexcrawl does exacerbate this feeling, making travel sometimes feel like a barrier instead of part of the fun.
- Relatedly, travel could be boring
- Not sure how to address that. The tension of rolling for encounters was super fun, but long stretches without encounters were boring.
- 6 mile hexes are fine, but I made too many of them. I would do smaller regions with 6 mi hexes. I also never tracked movement at fine enough grain to use the advantages of a 6 mi hex anyway.
- Though that said, once players bought horses the 6 mi felt pretty good; generally 1-3 days travel to most locations for level 5 PCs. So who knows…
- It took a long time for scheduling to start to work
- I was pretty upfront about my expectations, but I was also eager to play, so I stepped in to schedule and prod people. If you already have a group of engaged players I imagine they would take to scheduling themselves faster. Once we had a solid group of ~9 players, scheduling was easy.
- Preparation is front-loaded, but essentially infinite
- I had to eventually learn to only prepare what was absolutely needed and rely on tables and improvising for everything else.
- I improved at prep a ton. I learned what was important (general layout, reason for the location existing, connection to fronts, tensions and decisions characters would have to make, encounter and monster strategy details, a few key DCs, ways to make encounters fun) and what was not (basically everything else. I even stopped making detailed maps for most locations).
- Characters with social builds felt underutilized
- I did try to sprinkle in more social encounters, but overall the theme was wilderness and monsters, so they didn’t have many opportunities to use those skills unfortunately.
- When I did try to add social or political adventures, they started to creep towards violating “the adventure is not in town” rule.
- Similarly, Rangers or anyone emphasizing Perception and Survival were extremely useful.
- Most players didn’t actively share information. They would write session summaries and add things to the map, but that was about it. This led to some unneeded information asymmetries and time-wasting efforts to rediscover the same piece of information.
- I like the asymmetries possible in WM (e.g. find a dungeon and don’t tell anyone because you want to loot it), but some of them that emerged in my game were mostly just annoying.
- A campaign wiki could help this, but again I’m not sure players would want to maintain it. If my players wanted to they could have started their own.
- Example: one session the group went to a gnoll camp that had already been cleared by some members of the party. I had other plans for the gnolls, and they were gone. That same session the party was about to set off to a far-off dungeon that required a key another player (not playing) had. Thankfully they changed their mind. This could also be avoided by better following Alexandrian’s Three Clue Rule.
- We tried some Discord play-by-post RP for in-between sessions or session wrap-up, but it was a lot of effort. I also didn’t like that the options for the PCs were artificially restricted since I didn’t want to run combat over Discord. I was ok with session follow-up (you found X item, learned X, etc.) and quick downtime RP scenes on Discord, but that’s it.
- 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?
- Listen to player interests and build things for their character
- Leave player and world backstory to a minimum so you can fill in the details in play, collaboratively world build
- Either use only Deadly encounters or change how XP is rewarded
- 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.
- 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.
- Set up a Discord. Share everything you can with players. Consider suggesting players use a wiki.
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