One of the terms that gets thrown around a lot in OSR circles is “West Marches” or “West Marches Style Game”. But: What exactly does that mean?
What is a West Marches Style Game?
The term comes from one particular game, the original West Marches Game, which must have been – I am guessing here – born out of a desire: to break the endless cycle of predictable dungeon delves and mission games that start with a stairway down or a job offer end with a big bad killed;
and out of a necessity: namely the problem of failing to find a dedicated game day that was right for all of the players and the GM. Some of the defining traits of a West Marches Style Game follow from this situation:
The game happens when a group of players sets a date and initiates a session, asking the GM if he can run a session on that day. In other words, the GM does not chase the players, he does other things until the players come knocking and tell him they have time and want to play. He may put up a calendar with available dates, for practicality, and the players can sign up when they want to, but there is no one strictly “supposed” to come.
That, of course, demands to have a certain player base. With two players, you can’t stock West March style games. With four it might happen, but it will be a bit tough. You need a variable cast that can be shuffled around from session to session or it will become a “normal campaign”. Go recruiting!
2. Multiple characters
Since we have no fixed player base that the GM can count on, every session can have a different crew. Different in all aspects: There can be different PCs and / or different players, sharing the same world, each player can have a roster of characters to pick from, and the organiser / mission leader can invite players / characters as best fits the mission he has in mind.
3. Option: Multiple GMs
Apart from multiple players, there can also be multiple GMs. What if Andy has no time this week, but Randy or Rose do? If you have 25 players on call, who organise games in 6es and 7s, and four possible GMs to handle the actual gaming, and share the updated background info with each other, you have truly mastered West March Style Play.
The GM(s) has (have) a “sandbox” ready: A game world that is prepared for play, with several points of interest in it and a general overview of the land, which can house several modules or dungeon maps or buildings and some towns… a living world; but the world is not the backdrop for a fixed campaign, it is a free playing field ready to be molded by imaginative players.
A Sandbox game is one where there is no particular end point that ends the game. There is no master villain to overcome and “win”. Instead, the play area offers opportunities to interact with the landscape, and to change it, to pick from available spots, or to make your own and explore fresh territory: Free play, like children in a literal sandbox.
5. Shared Knowledge
The sandbox has a shared map, one which is known to the players – and the GMs. Maybe it is published in the main tavern or guild headquarters, because that is what a West March Style Game also needs: A fixed base. Whatever happens when one group goes out, it will filter back to the base, in the form of rumors or reports, and if the group comes back alive, in the form of their telling the tale. Other groups will know what happened while they were not there, they will know if a building burned down or an enemy got defeated, or if a fellow group went under, and they can build on that shared knowledge.
By the same token, the GMs need to share knowledge, because if one has got no time on Friday, but the other would, and the Friday group goes to finish that one adventure where the Wednesday group failed and barely escaped with their naked lives, then the Friday GM needs to know what went down on Wednesday, in order to build on that.
6. A fixed base
There must be some headquarter where this shared knowledge, and treasure, and equipment, can be stored, and where items can be bought, where patrons and hirelings can be reached and where retainers can be hired. This fixed base is also where players return to after their…
7. One shot missions
To avoid clashing of different groups, different playstyles, and different GMs in the shared reality, every game should not only start at the fixed base, it should also end with a return to that fixed base.
With this concept, when a new session starts, there is no awkward retro-explaining why some characters are there and some are not. There is no attempt to remember “what we did last time”: The group starts at the base, whatever happened last time was a while ago and everything might be different now. As always, the map and mission board tell the players what options are known that they could pick from. No mission is hanging in time limbo as “in progress”.
Open debate: 1:1 time records
… that also means that there must be some underlying order to explain when things happen. Did the Sphinx die already, or is it still there waiting for travellers? Is that temple looted or is the “Eye of Mitra” still hidden under the loose flagstone?
With parallel groups skipping forward through time as they please, overtaking others, things will change under a group’s feet, and canon will break. “We went to hunt the Grimlord, but on the weekend group B went ahead and killed him.”
One option to ensure linear stability of the shared world is 1:1 time: Some people (cough the so-called “BROSR” cough) swear by it and point to the widely beloved Gygax-mantra that you can’t have a meaningful campaign if strict time records are not kept.
Time management is important for healing purposes, for transcribing spells, and for handling scattered groups in-game, or world-plagued gamers where some players are present on Fridays and others every other Wednesday, while others are there every 1st of every second month, except on weekends.
It would be quite impossible to run a regular game under such circumstances, but a West Marches game can do it: by allowing lots and lots of games with various different and overlapping groups in the same shared world.
It can be a nuisance if you have to wait so many IRL days until the shattered leg of the front line fighter has mended, or if your magic user is busy with scrollwork but you want to go delving with him. And to be sure, 1:1 time records are not necessary if you have only one group — which can just talk to each other and decide “we wait two months and return” — and it is also not 100% optimal if you have little time for games and they are happening few and far between.
So there are enough voices who call such coupling of game- and life-calendar folly.
The problem with 1:1 time records
Problems arise when game-world events are rolling around and nobody is there IRL to play through them. If everyone knows that the army of the Dark Kynge is preparing a massive attack on the city where the player characters are located, but then summer is there and half the crew is on vacations, and one is going through a divorce, and one is sick, then what are you going to do with your 1:1 time records?
Two events that I have heard of:
1) an army was closing in on a city, with the PC group present in that place. By calendar, the army reached the city, and stormed and subjugated it, in a time span of some 3 to 5 days, during which no game session was had. In other words, a crucial moment in game world history happened right there in the presence of the PCs, but without player participation. Obviously, the PCs would be affected. The GM rolled to see if the PCs survived the war, and informed the players of the results accordingly.
2) again, a war: players were busy with domain management and directed armies. One of them got the information that an adventuring party was somehow in the way, and he sent assassins to remove them. That happened, once more, out of session. The plot succeeded and the party was wiped out — offscreen.
Added complication: On some tables, such actions can be rolled and adjudicated by the player, and the GM only needs to get informed what happened to put it into the aforementioned shared knowledge. So a whole adventuring party gets destroyed by one player without GM involvement. Nothing else to be done but to inform the players that they need new characters.
A weird thing, to be called or texted to hear that your character died, and you were not even there. Good for those who like such a play style, but it needs a good load of trust and preparedness to let go, and that is not how everyone plays. Most people want to be there at least, to maybe think of a way to escape.
Let logic and the needs of your own table guide you!
Ending sessions in the wilds
Back to West Marches — which do not have to be THAT strict with time — they just need to have active communications about canon and the world between sessions.
But: sessions cannot always go on until a situation is resolved.
What if you play and suddenly it is midnight and you have to work tomorrow, so you stop mid-game? As stated, every playing session should end back at the base. I hear that some groups just handwave return and say: “You go back home”.
Others, mindful of the dangers a retreat can bring, find this problematic. Some have stated that whoever did not make it home during the session is lost, which puts some extra stress on time management in a game session. Others have introduced random tables where you can roll for each character who did not make it out by the end of the session. They can take random damage, get killed, or lose items, or get lost in the dungeon or in the wilderness. Truly steel-hearted gamers declare that everyone who did not make it out of the dungeon by the end of the session is missing, presumed dead.
As stated above repeatedly: It is impractical to time-freeze, because of the danger that other groups and their actions my interfere with the unfolding mission … but we are humans, and we are gamers, and GMs can have good ideas to stall a group if it threatens to intrude on another one.
We are roleplayers. We are flexible and can handle shit. So once again,
Let logic and the needs of your table guide you.
Sometimes “Hexcrawl Game” is used synonymous with “West March style game”, but that is not quite correct. A hexcrawl game is when you give the players an almost blank map – either with only their home town and two or three nearby places on it, or, if you want to be more realistic, with several know other places farther away, but in any case with lots of empty space – and they go exploring. Hex by hex, because hexmaps are stylish – but obviously the map can be in squares, and it will still be technically a hexcrawl for all intents and purposes.
The GM can either know the master map and have his world ready, with keyed hexes in a secret binder, or he can randomly create the world and its features together with the players, rolling on random tables or spark tables or whatnot to populate whatever the party discovers, and use sub-systems to place landmarks more specifically at certain spots in a hex.
Things will also change during play. When there is a wizard tower in a hex, they may find out that it is the tower of Heke the necromancer, and if they kill him and make the structure their new home it is their tower now, provided nobody challenges them for it. These changes must be noted, and a history of the land emerges through play.
Hexcrawls can be a big part of a West March Style Game, because, as stated above under sandbox, players can go where their fancy takes them. But hexcrawls can also be “normal” games with one fixed group outside of West Marches style. They can happen in a normal campaign.
There can be games where the whole map is already known to the players, all the towns, streets, and mountains and woods. Is wandering around still a hexcrawl then? Definitions differ, but probably yes, because you still populate the hexes with details as the players find them.
So, the relationship between West Marches style games and hexcrawls is like the relationship between squares and rectangles. Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.
First Hand Experience
I did not really think I had ever played in a West Marches Style game, and derived the basis for this post out of talks on various Discord servers, some videos on youtube, and some blogposts. But pondering it a bit I came to the conclusion that the Snips story, the Wasters game, is technically a West Marches Style game as well.
We have a shared map, even though we go east to explore, and even though we have rectangular city blocks instead of hexes. Sometimes we end a session out in the wastes, und pick up where we left off next time, thereby bending and twisting the format a bit. But hey: It is a game. Make it your own, and play as you like. Nobody is to say you are wrong, as long as it works for your group and yourself.
It is player driven — the no 1 defining factor for West Marche style play — in the sense that the GM provides a mission board at our fixed HQ, but the players decide which job to take on, or if they want to do something else entirely. Player attendance can change, so not all characters are present at all times. Not strictly West-Marchy is that we have fixed times when such games happen. But that makes sense, because we all have lives and we have to get some order into it or things won’t work.
Let the needs of your table guide you.
4 thoughts on “West Marches”
I found your blog, and this article, via Ben Milton’s “The Glatisant Issue #28”. This is a really interesting breakdown of the West Marches style of play, especially the timekeeping aspects.
I’m also very grateful for you stating that multiple GMs is an entirely optional part of West Marches, and that not all hexcrawls are West Marches style games. I’ll be sure to send anyone confused about what a West Marches style game is here in the future!
My reply to you regarding timekeeping started to become overly long for a comment section, so I’ve written a reply post on my website if you wanted to see my own experiences with it. The short version is that there’s no single best method of timekeeping in a West Marches game. It took me a long time to realise that each method of timekeeping has its own merits and flaws, depending on number of simultaneous groups, travel time, recovery time, narrative intent.
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Thank you for your comment!
Sarainy has very valuable input about the time management issue, which is detailed here: https://sarainy.com/advice/timekeeping-in-west-marches-campaigns/
Thanks for the kind words. On reflection it feels like I kind of went full circle with my solution – back to a game world that advances after play. The only real difference is in presentation, by forcing sessions to not take up many days of narrative time and push things too far forward.
One lesson learnt from my West Marches game was to put the dungeon(s) and adventure sites much closer to the fixed base of the PCs. The Lost City of Barakus has the city of Endhome and then the eponymous Lost City 2 days travel away… which is REALLY far. Too far, in my opinion.
Pathfinder 2e’s Abomination Vaults, and the classic Keep on the Borderlands, do it better by having the dungeon less than an hours walk away. This means that the vast majority of sessions ‘Travel – Adventure – Return’ can be accomplished in only a single narrative day.
All this West Marches talk is making me want to start mine up again!
This article is amazing! A really clear explanation of what the West Marches style is all about. I had fun reading this!