• 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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