• Justin Handlin

What is West Marches Games and How to Run them in Dungeons & Dragons?

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What is a West Marches Dungeons & Dragons game?

For this episode we delve into a fantastic article written by Ars Ludi the Grand Experiment:

West Marches 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.

"The first game was set in a frontier region on the edge of civilization (the eponymous West Marches). There’s a convenient fortified town that marked the farthest outpost of civilization and law, but beyond that is sketchy wilderness. All the PCs are would-be adventurers based in this town. Adventuring is not a common or safe profession, so the player characters are the only ones interested in risking their lives in the wilderness in hopes of making a fortune (NPCs adventurers are few and far between). Between sorties into the wilds, PCs rest up, trade info, and plan their next foray in a tavern or inn."

The landscape is broken up into a variety of regions (Frog Marshes, Cradle Wood, Pike Hollow, etc.) each with its own particular tone, ecology, and hazards.

There are dungeons, ruins, and caves all over the place, some big and many small. Some are known landmarks, some are rumored but their exact location is unknown and others are completely unknown and only discovered by exploring.

The environment is dangerous. Very dangerous. That’s intentional because great stories teach us, danger unites. PCs have to work together or they are going to die. They also have to think and pick their battles — since they can go anywhere, there is nothing stopping them from strolling into areas that will wipe them out. The PCs must learn to observe their environment and adapt — when they find T-rex tracks they may want to avoid the area until they are a bit stronger. When they stumble into the lair of a terrifying black dragon they retreat and round up a huge posse to hunt it down.

The characters are small fish in a dangerous ocean that they have to explore with caution, but because adventurers are few and far between they take center stage. They are rarely overshadowed by other adventurers.

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Every game session begins and ends at the same town or fortress. Additionally, every session can be entirely self-contained. The new session will always represent a completely new foray, even if the party is exactly the same as last time, and want to resume a similar pursuit.

In later adventures, as travel times increase away from that point of origin, the act of traveling itself can be a simple or complex as you want. Often times it is just handwaved away in place of far more interesting encounters. All the while the players decide where to take their adventures.

While it's sandbox, the players can and should let the DM know what they want to do. This way the DM can prepare in advance, without needing to prepare the whole world, or improvise large pieces of content.

As all PCs are assumed to spend their downtime in the same town, word gets round about what happens on each adventure. Players are encouraged to write up session notes and share them with everyone, via a discord or group page. It's a living world, the same mountain king cannot be killed by two different groups, so the second group that wanted to try needs to know if the first succeeded or not. Because of this, new quests can be picked up by any group of players base on notes shared from other adventuring parties. There is a shared world map, that's potentially unreliable based on knowledge checks and learned information.

All initial objectives and later objectives that are discovered are marked on a shared map, which players can use to suggest places they want to explore.

The initial map is produced in-game by a character and is only as reliable as that character's map-making skills. It is later edited by the players who may also make mistakes. This means it's possible to get lost if the map is wrong (and the players can subsequently correct it).

Competition between players is actively encouraged. Jealousy is considered to be a useful motivational force in getting sessions booked and games actually played. Especially if someone conquers a big bad boss for epic loot that another group failed to defeat. Because of this anyone else can pick up from the interesting place where you last left off, or someone else has discovered something exciting, then that motivates you to prioritize organizing your next session. Especially when powerful magic items and artifacts are to be won.

All content is loosely tiered. Players started at a low level and would meet on average higher levels of danger the further they ventured outside of town. This meant players could largely assess whether a threat was likely to be appropriate or not.

Significantly stronger threats in low-level areas were normally well signposted. Having pockets of more difficult enemies made the world more exciting, more diverse and incentivized PC's returning to earlier explored areas later when they were stronger.

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."

-Ars Ludi-

Details for this show are from Visit Ars Ludi the Grand Experiment. Visit Ars Ludi for even more details and breakdown of running the wonderful West Marches style D&D game!

Unearthed Tips and Tricks Monthly Magazine! We bring you new and creative content for you to bring with you on your next adventure

Character Concept:

Myathethil Lepus, Female Half-Elf

Description: Her skin has the orange glow of too much sun. She is dressed in earthy colors with a black and pastel handkerchief worn on her left side. She has golden hair. Her gray eyes dart from person to person.

Personality: She is intelligent and cunning, but she will too often allow her rage to get the better of her. She will lose her cool and rely on brute force to carry the day. She works hard and plays hard.

History: Myathethil was born the youngest of three triplets. She was an adventurer many years ago and she formed a blood bond with her Half-Elven companion (her 'brother'). She has drifted apart from her friends and has been working freelance. Each gave each other a copy of their signature morningstar.

Motivation: To prove her worth to the world, and she has a passion for adventuring and risk


Earthbound Titan

Origin: Gargoyle

Lost Feature: Fly

New Feature:

Earthbound Regeneration. The titan regains 10 hit points at the start of its turn. If the titan isn’t standing upon earth, stone, or similar terrain, this trait doesn’t function at the start of the titan’s next turn. The titan dies only if it starts its turn with 0 hit points and doesn’t regenerate.



Naill Hanali a goliath berserker has spent the last 30 years seeking out a lost artifact of the Iron Heart clan. It was wielded by the clan's elder shaman and was a tool for protecting the clan. Naill seeks to become the next elder shaman. His lack of connection to the land has prevented him from tapping into the primal energies. He believes that with the Opal of the Stein Rune he will gain the access to magic that will allow him to achieve his goal. There is an unfortunate problem. The hidden tomb where he believes the opal to be is protected by two guardians. Once that he is unable to best no matter how hard he tries. Naill believes the creature to be nigh-invincible. But, refuses to give up on his dream and returns to his village in shame.

The temple guardians are two earthbound titan (CA). So long as the titans are standing on the earth, stone or a similar terrain, they regenerate 10 hit points at the start of each of their turns. A character who succeeds on a DC 25 Intelligence (Investigation) check identifies the absorption effect that is healing the titans. The longer they battle the creatures, the more obvious it becomes. The DC for the check drops by 3 for each round that passes. The characters must get the gargoyles off the ground via levitation or similar spell or effect in order to end the regeneration.

Magic Item:

Opal of the Stein Rune

Wondrous item, very rare (requires attunement)

This large opal is about the size of an adult human’s fist. The stein (stone) rune appears on it in the form of crystalline veins that run across the surface. The opal has the following properties, which work only while it’s on your person.

Indomitable Stand. As an action, you can channel the opal’s magic to hold your ground. For the next minute or until you move any distance, you have advantage on all checks and saving throws to resist effects that force you to move. In addition, any enemy that moves to a space within 10 feet of you must succeed on a DC 15 Strength saving throw or be unable to move any further this turn.

Stone Soul. You are immune to the petrified condition.

Earthen Step. You can cast meld into stone as a bonus action. Once you use this property, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Gift of Stone. You can transfer the opal’s magic to a nonmagical item—a shield or a pair of boots—by tracing the stein rune there with your finger. The transfer takes 8 hours of work that requires the two items to be within 5 feet of each other. At the end, the opal is destroyed, and the rune appears in silver on the chosen item, which gains a benefit based on its form:

Shield: The shield is now a rare magic item that requires attunement. While you wield it, you have resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.

Boots: The pair of boots are now a rare magic item that requires attunement. While you wear the boots, you have advantage on Strength saving throws, and you can use your reaction to avoid being knocked prone. In addition, you can cast the erupting earth spell using a spell save DC of 15. Once you use this property, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Dungeon Master Tip:

Apply Templates to Create New Monsters

In D&D each monster has a unique set of features that defines them. For example, most zombies have Undead Fortitude, or a Ghost is expected to be incorporeal and floating, with specific resistances and immunities. You can easily identify these core traits and add them to ANY monster to create something fun and unique with little work. The Monster Manual gives us a great example with the Half-Dragon Template.

Half-Dragon Template

A beast, Humanoid, giant, or Monstrosity can become a half-dragon. It keeps its Statistics, except as follows.

Challenge. To avoid recalculating the creature's Challenge rating, apply the template only to a creature that meets the options prerequisite in the Breath Weapon table below. Otherwise, recalculate the rating after you apply the template.

Senses. The half-dragon gains Blindsight with a radius of 10 feet and Darkvision with a radius of 60 feet.

Resistances. The half-dragon gains Resistance to a type of damage based on its color.

Languages. The half-dragon speaks Draconic in addition to any other Languages it knows.

New Action: Breath Weapon. The half-dragon has the breath weapon of its Dragon half. The half-dragons size determines how this action functions.

Player Tip: Don’t be a Dick

The Right to Bear Arms!

The druid circle of the moon is a powerful build as it lets you turn into a bear that has a multiattack...at level 2. That’s right, we are building a kungfu panda! Once you’ve picked up the power to wild shape into a bear. Now you’re going to multiclass into a monk. With this dip we can now use flurry of blows, giving us two extra unarmed strikes while in bear form. Of course, this expands to dodging, disengaging, and dashing as a bonus action. Oh, and we can double our jump distance for fantastic flying kicks. Imagine catching arrows between your teeth, spinning, and sending it right back at your enemies (reflavor of catching with hands since it's required for the feature. But you get it).

What good is a kung fu panda without a Hadouken? For our monastic tradition, we want to pick up the Sun Soul monastic tradition. Now we can send blasts of blue energy from our paws or maw with the radiant sun bolt. Now, go, and battle your way to the top and show the world your right to bear arms.

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Keep your blades sharp and spells prepared heroes!

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