Game Master's Journey 170: West Marches Campaign Variants

Lex discusses some variations you can consider to tailor the West Marches formula to the needs of your own campaign. He describes the variations he's using for his own campaign, The Hinterlands of Elandria.

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Previous West Marches Episodes

166: West Marches Campaigns

167: Preparing & Running a West Marches Campaign

Learn more about the West Marches from the source!

West Marches Variants

Smaller Pool of Players / Just One Group

There’s no reason you can’t enjoy this style of campaign, even if you don’t have a large pool of players to pull from, or you don’t have time to run multiple sessions every week or month.

If you only have one group, player use of the community forum may not be as big of a deal. You may not need AARs at all, it’s up to you. Also, you may want to use more traditional means to schedule your games.

You can still enjoy a lot of what the West Marches has to offer—exploration of a dangerous wilderness.

Doing longer forays into the wilds (longer than one session)

If you’re only going to have one group of players, limiting their forays into the wilds to one session is no longer something you need to worry about.

If you’re using a larger pool of players, then there will be problems to overcome anytime a group stays out in the wilds for more than a single session. The schtick of returning to town at the end of each session resets all those PCs so they’re available for further adventures. That way, players don’t have to worry about hooking up with the same players and characters for the next session. Anytime a group doesn’t return to town, those players have to commit to wait to play those characters again until they can all play together again. This limits some of the flexibility of WM play, but this is only the case if you have more players than you can accommodate in one group.

Adding Plots/Story to the Sandbox

NPCs in town can send the PCs on various quests. These can be “side quests” and/or can be quests that connect together into story arcs.

Locations in the area can have story elements. The PCs could get a quest (or quest line) at a location. The PCs could visit a location/dungeon that has a story they can explore as they explore the site.

You can also add published material to your West Marches. You could populate the map with dungeons and other locations from published adventures. For example, the Sunless Citadel, the Forge of Fury, the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and White Plume Mountain could all be located on your WM map.

In my campaign, I will be bookending the west marches sandbox part of the campaign with story-based content. It will begin with a story/quest that leads the PCs into the West Marches part of the campaign and encourages them to explore. This story will be a thread running through the campaign, tying it all together. However, there will be times when there’s nothing for the PCs to do to further the main “story quest” and they can just explore and enjoy sandbox style play. When the players begin to lose steam on the West Marches style, or when they get high enough level (whichever happens first), I’ll begin the next chapter of the story, which will pull the high-level characters into more world-affecting events. (I see West Marches working great for low- to mid-level play, but at high level, PCs should be affecting the world on a larger scale than the regional one of a West Marches campaign. I.e. I think PCs will “outgrow” a West Marches campaign at high level.)

Having adventures in town.

I don’t know that having adventures in the town needs to be as much of a no-no as it was in Ben’s game. If the PCs spend an entire session in the town talking to NPCs, so what? I think this will manage itself.

If you have a pool of players, there will be that sense of competition, so spending too much time in town will seem to the players like they’re not accomplishing anything. Even if you only have one group of players, they’ll tend to earn less xp (if any) while in town, so they’ll still have that feeling of not progressing while they’re hanging out in town.

Also, you can use the NPCs in the town to constantly point the PCs back to the wilds for adventure. This is what I plan to do with my campaign. Many of the NPCs will have quests for the PCs--tasks they’d like completed--and this will almost always (if not always) involve the PCs leaving town and going into the wilds. This makes a lot of sense because only adventurers are brave/stupid enough to leave town and venture into the wilds. These quests could be anything from retrieving sheep that have wandered off (or alpacas in my campaign), to looking for a hunter who hasn’t returned, to investigating strange lights or sounds, etc.

Developing the town

I think a natural supplement to this kind of campaign is development of the town. Not only can the PCs make their mark by exploring the wilderness, they could also help fortify and improve the town. Perhaps they build a stronghold within it, improve the wall, attract followers to help guard the town, etc. PCs could invest the money they earn from adventuring into improving the town and its fortifications. This will definitely be a big part of the campaign I plan to run in Primordia.

I think that not developing the town is a missed opportunity. In many D&D campaigns, the low-level characters become heroes of the town, only to leave and never return. In a West Marches campaign, this town will serve as a home base and staging point for the entire campaign, or at least a good chunk of it. I think you should develop the NPCs in the town and develop the PCs’ relationships with them. As they complete successful expeditions, they will make names for themselves in the town, perhaps earning special privileges (discounted or free rooms at the inn, a building to use for their own purposes, offers of marriage, etc.).

Also, if you develop the NPCs and the players grow to care about some of them, any future threats to the town by the monsters in the wilds will have more of an impact.

Building a Stronghold

I think this is a great campaign in which to implement strongholds and followers. As they grown in power and wealth, the PCs could build or man a stronghold in or near the town. They could attract followers.

Now this will take the campaign in new directions, but I think they’re interesting directions that the PCs will enjoy exploring. It will also give some variety to the campaign at a point when it might be starting to get a little samey.

If the PCs establish a stronghold, they will have to deal with the cost and other upkeep of maintaining it. They’ll have to maintain a staff, and they’ll likely want to attract followers that can help them defend the stronghold, especially when they’re away. If the stronghold is in or near the town, it can help bolster its defense.

This can also be a great way to tie the PCs and the campaign into your larger setting. If the PCs have a stronghold, there will likely be some kind of noble above them that they’ll answer to—whoever is over the town. They will now be a part of the political feudal system, and whether or not they want it, they will get pulled into politics. As the PCs get into the higher tiers of play, you can use this as a vehicle to introduce more political play, intrigue, and social interaction. This can all be a welcome change of pace from the wilderness exploration that the players have been doing for the last 10 levels or so.

My Campaign - The Hinterlands of Elandria

Although I really dig the WM concept, like I do with all things as a GM, I’m making it my own. I think there are a lot of great ideas here, but I do think there’s room for improvement. Which is to say there are ways to tailor this to be exactly what I look for in a game. I’m not saying this will be better for everyone.

Only One Group

I’d love to run D&D multiple times a week, but right now I just don’t have the time with everything else I’ve got going on. So by necessity, I can only run at most once a week, so I don’t think there’d be any benefit to having a large pool of players. I’ll only have one group of players.

Because I only have one group, I won’t be as concerned with getting the PCs back to town at the end of every game session. However, I will still try to do that when I can, because it will make it really easy if a player misses the next session. But it’s not imperative that I get them back to town at the end of each session. This will enable me to use more involved story arcs and larger dungeons and encounter areas, since I don’t have to worry about the players being able to complete an area in one session.


There is a lot that’s appealing about sandbox play—the player’s have the freedom to go wherever they want and do whatever they want, and their fate is truly in their hands. However, I think a campaign with only sandbox play and no story would be boring and ultimately uninteresting. I think it would be fun for a while, but as the newness wore off, it would become a slog. Yes, exploration is the name of the game in WM, but exploration of the setting is only one type of exploration. Many players also want to explore a story.

I don’t think it has to be an either/or thing. I think you can have sandbox and story, and I think a balance of the two is better than either is by itself.

I think the biggest concern here is to not let the story “take over”. What I mean by that is that I don’t want the story to become so much front and center that the players lose that sandbox feel, that they start to feel like they have to follow the story and are no longer free to explore. A big thing to avoid here is any kind of a “ticking clock”. Many/most of the published campaigns suffer from this. E.g. in Tyranny of Dragons, the PCs are trying to save the world, and taking time off to build a keep, learn a language, or just explore the world doesn’t make any sense. If the characters really care about what they’re doing, they’d never do that.

I think there are some ways to avoid this. First, try to avoid a ticking clock altogether. When coming up with your story, try to come up with one that doesn’t have a deadline. Alternatively, you can have a deadline, but then have the players periodically hit a dead end. You see this a lot in MMOs and RPG video games. You’ll be on a quest line, but then hit a point where you have no leads and no way to further that quest line. You then do side quests or whatever until you stumble upon something that gets you going on that quest line again. This is effectively telling the players they have free reign to do whatever right now, since they have no leads on the main story quest.

Second, you could have steps in the quest line that require exploration. Perhaps the PCs have to find a specific magic item or NPC to continue the quest, but they don’t know where to find it, so they have to explore until they get a lead.

Third, instead of having one huge world-affecting plot, use a number of smaller story arcs. These arcs can come from NPCs in the town in the form of favors or side quests they ask the PCs to perform. These will take up less game time to complete, so even if the players fixate on an arc to the exclusion of exploration or anything else, after a few sessions they’ll complete that arc and can then return to exploring.

Also, if the players are encountering numerous possible arcs they’ll get the idea that they don’t necessarily have to pursue all of them, but can choose the ones that seem most interesting or rewarding. This is really in keeping with the spirit of a WM campaign where the players choose their adventures.

Some of these various side quests/story arcs can also converge into a larger story if you want. The possibilities are endless here.

I think this will work best if you’re not using a pool of players, although I think you can still do it with a pool of players—it will just be even more important that they’re sharing information on the community forum so that all the players (and characters) can know what’s going on with the stories.

In my game, I’ll only have one group of players, so this will work great. I have a story to kick the campaign off and get the PCs from Elandria to the campaign area (the Hinterlands of Elandria). This story will then also provide a motivation for the PCs to get to know the NPCs in the town and start exploring and adventuring in the area. As they adventure and return to the town to rest, sell loot, etc., they will be presented with various opportunities for side quests/plots by NPCs in the town.

The main story will involve quite a bit of investigation and exploring, so it will feed back into the WM exploration, and there will be times where the PCs don’t have a way to advance the story other than explore and wait until they find a new clue.

The completion of the first story arc will kick off a second follow-up arc, and completing that will kick off a third arc which will require even more exploration and venturing farther from the town than they probably have done at that point.

There will be no real time limit on these arcs, so the players could really focus on them and try to get them done ASAP, or they could take their time and do a lot of exploration and side quests. It will be up to them.

Once these arcs are completed, I have a high level story arc that I will implement once the PCs have either out-leveled WM play, or the players are getting tired of it and are ready for something else. This will be a more far-reaching story which will have world-effecting consequences, which is appropriate for high level characters.

Town Play & Stronghold

I plan to do more with the town and the NPCs in it. I want the players to care about this town.

I also consider strongholds and followers to be a vital part of the D&D experience, and I’m working on my own rules and systems for this. There are actually more than one possibility for the PCs to gain a stronghold in the campaign I’m developing. Plus, the players may create other opportunities I’m not anticipating. They could choose one, or they could do all of them if they want. It will be up to the players. However, they do have the ability to get a stronghold and attract followers, at which point they’ll be part of the political feudal machine and will be drawn into the wider politics of the region. This is appropriate for higher-tier play.

Campaign Structure

Overall, my Hinterlands of Elandria campaign will look something like this:

Levels 1-2 or 3: A fairly linear story that gets the PCs into the Hinterlands and kicks off the WM part of the campaign. The story will motivate them to explore the area, establish themselves in the town, and investigate some mysteries.

Levels 2 or 3 – 8 or 9: The PCs will enjoy WM style play while also pursuing the main story and side quests. They will also ultimately have the opportunity to establish a stronghold and attract followers. If they do so, they will become more and more aware of the bigger problems and issues their higher ups are dealing with in the region, and presumably they will take more of an interest in these.

Levels 10+: As the PCs out-level or grow bored with WM play, they will be pulled into a high level story arc that will be world-affecting. They will discover that everything they’ve accomplished up to this point has been preparation for a greater challenge they must face.

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