A few months ago, I started a westmarches campaign for a huge group of people on a whim. I had been thinking about running D&D for a while, but hearing about this different kind of campaign style sparked the final flame. I asked around if anyone would be interested – and in one hour, I had 10 players.
The next week was spent on writing the world and asking the players what they would like to do. I got a lot of suggestions, many of which were very fitting for the world I had in mind and many that I couldn’t squeeze in. The world I ended up with was a modified version of Eberron, and I wrote a brief for all the players to read. The stage was ready.
After that I set up a facebook group that was free for anyone to join. I got almost 30 players, some of them I knew and some I didn’t. After handing out the link to the world-info, and telling everyone what kind of game I was going to run, people started making their characters. Scheluding one-to-one meetings for the people who hadn’t made d&d-characters before, I had my hands full of work even before the actual games started. Everyone was excited to be a part of a big gaming group.
The way west marches basically works is that a player picks an interesting thing in the world, tells the other they want to explore that thing, gather other players to join and then schelude a game night with the said players and the gamemaster. After every game the characters return to the same place, in this case a city, so that when the next adventure starts they will be free to join. It is basically a pile of one-shots played in the same world.
Each of the games we played, except for the very first one, lasted from around 3 to 5 hours. I used ready adventures as a base and modified them to my liking. The stories consisted of the beginning (the group getting a mission or deciding to do something), the traveling and a dungeon/battle. Social play and drama weren’t really a part of any of the games. After finishing the dungeon the characters took their loot and returned home, and we ended the sessions to that. Leveling up and buying gear was mostly done outside of the table.
Well to start with, 30 people is a lot, especially when you only know half of them. Even though I didn’t get to play with all of the people that signed up, I still got exhausted from the social pressure of handling that much people. I had thought it would be easy and relaxing, but when you organize stuff, people expect a lot. You have to be ready to work with a lot of different people, all of who have very varying levels of skills and understanding of the game.
Don’t expect new players to know anything. D&D proved to be a difficult one, because some people confuse the system with the stories that have been written about the campaign settings, like the Forgotten Realms. A common Q&A might have been a good thing to have.
Be strict about your own timetables. With this many people there will always be someone who would like to play, but you don’t have to run a game if you don’t want to. I ended up promising to run basically every time I was asked, and soon the whole thing felt like work.
Consider having two or more gamemasters in a campaign this big. After I announced I would quit running, many of the players said they would be happy to take on the project and start running games themselves. It’s not decided yet, but I think the project is going to continue without me, which makes me really happy.
Take it easy. There doesn’t have to be a lot of very surprising plotlines in an adventure-heavy game that lasts for 3 hours. Beginning, traveling to the location, maybe one small fight and a dungeon/bossfight, then reurning home. The more players you have the longer the battles are going to get, at least if you run D&D 5e. Don’t be ashamed to download content someone else has written either, it’s there to be used.
Remember, you gamemaster because it’s fun. If you’re not having fun, then something needs to change – the gamemaster, the plot, the characters, the players… you don’t need to do what the players want you to do just because they want it (unless you’re being paid for gamemastering, then I guess just think about the money.)
Pros and cons
West marches is a great way of building community, meeting new people, and making it possible for people with unpredictable timetables to attend a game every once in a while. Single games are easy to prepare, as they are short and simple, always ending to the same place. That can make world building tricky though, as the difficulty should rise gradually as the characters move further away from their base.
I stopped running the campaing, because the juice of gamemastering for me are the big plots of the world and the social issues the charaters face, and those elements are hard to fit into west marches (at least for me). I like to decide what I’m going to run, not wait for the players to decide where they want to go. I also like to pick the players I feel will enjoy the game I’m about to run. I think about running roleplays much like I think about running larps – they are experiences that must be crafted carefully. West marches was more of a game than an experience.
I hope this has been helpful to some of you! You can find out more about west marches from this Matthew Colvilles video.