This article is the second part of an article published about the West Marches.
So last time, while talking about my survey of players and terminology, I finished up the article by offering a definition of West Marches play and some of the reasons it is a worthy playstyle.
So if you read that article and felt interested in the West Marches style as a game, is there anything you can bear in mind for the running of the game?
There’s a variety of complicated pitfalls that aren’t always a good idea for this style of play, and avoiding them from the outset could be really important. So let’s take a moment, now we know the term, to break down some processes.
When you begin a West Marches game, it’s worth thinking about your player base.
Are these people who are going to be comfortable organising themselves? Is anyone going to find it difficult to ask others to do a thing they are interested in? What happens if someone is very interested, but no one else is?
Your session zero almost needs to be like a town hall meeting. Everyone needs to be made aware of the power they have and that they can talk about why no one wants to undertake a specific quest.
This way, everyone is starting from the same block and has safety tools so they don’t feel left out.
Expect To Lose People, plan accordingly
Someone will be unable to handle this style, even if they say they are ok with it. They might be a player who isn’t proactive, never has enough time, or just because of playstyle clash always wants to do stuff others don’t.
You should plan accordingly.
If you do have some grand secret about the area planned to maybe come out at some point, do not tie it into the backstory of only one player. Because that will be the player that e-mails you that they have decided to leave the game.
A different technique can be to hand different bits of a larger puzzle to people in their backstories that might come out if they actually play together. This builds a story from the actual interactions, triggers new opportunities based on people moving between groups. And if one of them leaves for some reason, it was never a given that you were going to follow that plot point.
Imagine one set of players go a bit murderhobo and burn down a hamlet on the map accidentally or kill an NPC who others liked.
This moment might set players against each other, so you need to be ready to have an open communications channel about stuff where players can talk about things out of character. Rather than one character suddenly having to listen to her companion tell a tale about how they murdered her uncle or something like that.
Keep a timeline
Because different groups might take different times to achieve different things, it’s not only important to work out where everyone is but WHEN everyone is, too.
Some people might be doing things out of sequence for each other, so try to maintain timelines.
Often a good technique is to use any downtime between adventures to just skip players through the timeline, explaining what has happened and ask them if there’s anything they would like to do once they are caught up.
The Fellowship Problem
Some people have freer schedules; some people are just up for playing more often. If you notice a group of players are always scheduling together and doing most of the adventuring, then you have a difficult question. Because the format is supposed to make sure everyone is included and thrive on a huge interconnected group, not create cliches.
You need to decide how much you want to cater here. Because on one level, you are just playing with the people who are available, but if they are starting to take up all the storylines, that’s not going to feel good for others.
Make sure you keep taking the temperature of the group.
Eventually, something massive is going to happen. A planet will get destroyed, a superhero will kill the president, the central settlement will become swept up in a war and undergo a prolonged siege.
These massive repercussions are very important to factor in and let everyone feel like they know they are coming. Obviously, the last thing you want to do is have players responding to an event like that sporadically, as the timeline doesn’t work out well.
You could, in theory, run a bigger game with lots of players in the location, for once taking the reigns to schedule something saying ‘look people, the battle of Peleton Farms is happening, and you are all in that area, I am gonna need to have you all or tell lots of separate stories, could you talk to each other’ is a good move.
Once the big event happens, maybe call a new session zero to explain the new status quo to everyone and maybe give some players a chance to drop out and others join the game, rotate the cast, as it were.
Evolve Not Dissolve
As I have just hinted at, rotating the cast and adding people in is a great way to keep things fresh.
If a player or two drops out, look for more to fill their spaces. Having people arriving all the time to explore the world leads the story in a new and interesting direction, and for new players arriving into this world, the legend of others reaching their ears who they then meet can be a very cool experience.
Just give some mind to how characters at a different level of experience can interact with a problem or bring new players in at similar levels of play to the existing cast.
Think Outside The Box
One of the final things to think about with this format is that a West Marches game doesn’t have to take place inside a fantasy wilderness.
Wanna tell the story of a city full of superheroes who sometimes work together in a sporadic team up but have Avengers style groups? What about the tale of a solar system controlled by various dynasties with secrets hidden amongst the planets? How about a horror game focused on a smaller country like England, Portugal or Senegal, where the players are individual scholars of the occult looking for ways into the strange and investigating weird happenings?
All of these are doable under the west marches format, if you think hard enough and have the players to make it happen.
Next time we will move on to a different term from the survey I conducted and look at the evolution of an idea when we look at ‘Meta’.
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