Discussion about West Marches Inspired Campaign

ffilz's picture

I've been reading about West Marches again, and I'm thinking aspects of what Ben Robbins did would be a great campaign setup to use with a college friend's game system (Cold Iron) that I've been starting to think about running.

First a couple links for background:

A Google Doc where I ruminate on Cold Iron and link to other resources I have: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nyOzdxP8VZV2oSyKnxnS160WBRpC1Cd9fNfn...

Ben Robbins blog posts on West Marches: http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/grand-experiments-west-marches/

Now I say West Marches Inspired rather than West Marches Style for some good reasons.

1. I don't expect to have enough players, nor do I have the scheduling flexibility to do the "players recruit a group of players and schedule a session for an expedition" aspect that seems to be one of the main things people mean when they say "West Marches Style".

2. I'm really interested in the type of sandbox Ben Robbins describes that is NOT a hex crawl (he recommends against a hex map).

3. My schedule only allows for 2 hour sessions. Since Cold Iron has a crunchy (whatever that really means) combat system (it's at least comparable to D&D 3.x or Classic RuneQuest), it's not realistic to expect an expedition to explore and return to town in one session. But given #1, that isn't a problem...

Why am I interested in West Marches? Well, for one, Cold Iron is a system that is not well suited to extensive dungeons, but as a class and level system, if players are to have control over risk, there has to be a "leveled" wilderness. In the past, wilderness encounters were set up by me as GM to be "challenging" to the PCs. Of course that's really hard to do... Setting up regions with different ranges of occupants allows the players to choose their risk level (of course any time they encounter a new area, they may misjudge , but that's part of the game, they will need to develop strategies for scoping out new areas. Of course I'll provide some warnings too.

Also, Cold Iron has no social mechanics beyond a Charisma attribute and a few spells. This makes the "no town adventures" aspect really appealing.

So West Marches features I intend to utilize:

1. Players are responsible for planning expeditions. I will provide some initial rumors and there will be occasional treasure maps or other hints, but it's up to the players to decide what to do.

2. No town adventures.

3. I won't show the players my map. If the players decide to make a map (a good idea), I won't correct mistakes (I will correct clear mis-hearing of things I said, so if after describing "the woods are to the west of your camp" and the players start talking about going east to the woods, I'll correct them (but if they say we head west to the woods while drawing the woods to the east, oops on their part...). The players will have to decide how to share their maps.

4. Danger gradients and regional encounter tables - with each region having its own encounter table, each region will be theoretically designed with some range of danger, with less dangerous regions closer to town. Regions might have adventure sites that are more dangerous than the general danger level for the region. These should be telegraphed in some way.

5. Adventure sites will not always be designed to easily be cleaned out. Puzzles and locked doors, dangerous encounters., and such may prevent cleaning out and then be a reason to return. Secret areas that are hard to find might have rumors and hints elsewhere that point to them.

Now some additions based on Cold Iron.

1. Cold Iron has always been run with "magic shops" where you can buy magic items, and that to me is part of the appeal of the game (and makes for a rich expedition planning and risk management system under player control). I will continue that but I'm thinking of limiting the levels of the in town NPC Wizards that make the magic items, placing higher level Wizards out in the wilderness. Those "Wizard Towers" would not really be "safe places" to move the home base to, just a place they can go to acquire the better magic items. Of course I will also place some of the better magic items as treasures.

2. I have in the past introduced D&D style magic items (which often could not be reproduced with Cold Iron spells). These will make for cool treasures to find. There's a wide variety of cool D&D magic items that won't break the Cold Iron system but break the Cold Iron magic rules.

One question I have is what sorts of wilderness adventure procedures are important. Ben talks about Ability Score Damage:

I’m avoiding the D&D Edition Wars, but one part of 3E that I used heavily in West Marches (and don’t think I ever mentioned) was ability score damage. It was an extremely useful tool for subtle gradations of wear and tear vs progress, something that’s really critical in a trek/exploration game.

Forced march to get out of owlbear territory? Lose Con. Fever in the Frog Marches? Lose Wisdom. Dripping wet in the Hidden Stair in the dead of winter? Lose Strength.

You could also score short-term benefits. Gaze in the Moon Pool? Gain Wisdom, if you do it right. Drink the hearty Druidic mead the Keeper of Bees gave you? Gain Con. Drink the strange brew in the mushroom caves? Lose Charisma (because you’re a little nutty and freaking everyone out) but gain Wisdom, at least for a while.

Ability score damage was pretty much a constant presence — we rarely had a game without it. It was nice because you could lay on very small impairing effects (ooh, stagnant water, Fort save or -1 Dex), so environmental decisions, like having a good wilderness skill to find good water, made a difference, but it wasn’t a save vs poison or die kind of thing.

I'll have to look at the D&D rules about that but I'm wondering what sorts of things are in the encounter tables and what comes out of the procedures of the game. Cold Iron doesn't have much adventuring procedures but these kinds of things could easily be added.

Does anyone have a favorite wilderness movement rates system? I'm looking for systems that don’t only work with hexes. The system should effectively have miles per hour (or per day, can be converted to miles per hour) for various terrain features with modifiers for roads and paths of various quality. RuneQuest 1e and 2e I know have decent rates, and I think AD&D has some reasonable rates. But any other good ones?

The next thing on my list of considerations is what sorts of things to have driven by character skills.

Cold Iron has an Alertness attribute which is generally used for spotting enemies so I want to work on some rules to use it in encounter distance determination, avoiding ambushed, or avoiding surprise in a dungeon environment.

I think some kind of system for tracking makes sense.

Wilderness navigation skill could be a good thing.

The locks and traps skills of D&D thieves are an obvious thing. In the past I have opined that having the thief means you have locks and traps to justify the thief, and then you need to make them hard so the thief doesn't just bypass them. With Ben's suggestion that dungeons may have sections that you can't get into now and have to come back for later, these skills may actually work well.

Search/Spot Hidden is another thing that is useful.

Having a Scout class and a Thief class that can be improved to help these areas seems workable. I like the idea of breaking things up so not all Scouts or Thieves are the same. But I think some of the stuff needs to be able to be done by a broader swath of people (one option - give everyone who isn't a caster 1st level in either Scout or Thief).

The normal distribution of Cold Iron gives the possibility of a really good roll allowing access to something that normally would be too hard. I don't think that's a problem.

So I just need to decide on the forumula for skill rating and pick ranges of target numbers. D&D 3.x may be a good start here (stepping TN by 5 meshes reasonably well with the scale of the Chance Adjustment Chart - 5 is not quite one standard deviation). Skill rating should be some combination of class level, skill level, and 1 or 2 attribute adjustments, plus possible magic enhancement.

Are there other broad skill areas (that could become classes) or profficiencies that make sense? Some Charisma based stuff probably makes some sense, but is also tricky with the "No Town Adventures" but that doesn't mean there aren't people out in the wilds to talk to and negotiate with.


Billy's picture

Hi Frank,

I have some interest in this type of game, so I can say how I like to set it up.

I think it can be a mistake to create a lot of detailed mechanics about travel. You are already on the right path by realizing that Ben did not use a hex crawl system. Very few rolls should be required for travel most of the time. The core procedure is very simple: you describe exactly what the players can see, and they say where they want to go. Then you plot their travel direction on a map, while narrating their journey and simultaneously marking off travel time on a series of checkboxes you will have prepared for this purpose.

The exact speed of travel doesn't matter much, except for relative to your encounter rate and the distance to adventure sites. Average encounters on a round trip = 2 x (encounter rate per hour) x (distance to dungeon / miles per hour). If you have only two hours per session, you probably don't want a lot of random encounters per session, so you probably want either a short distance to the dungeons or a low encounter rate per hour relative to the travel rate.

Personally, I have used the numbers straight from D&D 3.0. That is, an unencumbered human can walk three miles per hour (or one mile per 20 minutes). An encumbered human or any dwarf can walk two miles per hour (or one mile per 30 minutes). These values make it easy to check off time using ten-minute exploration turns. I have a one-mile grid imposed over my map, so I can eyeball the distance they move and mark off the appropriate number of checkboxes. For rough terrain (forest/hills), the time cost is doubled. You could use a more favourable rate for roads; I don't have a lot of good roads on my map so I haven't had much cause to think of it.

For what it is worth, my current daily tracker looks like this.

[spoiler]Image of my daily tracker sheet with 10-minute turns.[/spoiler]

At the start of each adventure day, I roll in advance for the weather, and also to determine in advance which turns random encounters will fall on (I use a fixed number of encounters per day since this makes balance and planning easier). Actually I have an Excel spreadsheet that rolls these checks for me. I then quickly copy these values down onto the physical sheets I will use for running the game, circling each turn where an encounter will take place. Since these values are not impacted by player actions, a number of sheets can be filled out before the session and then used as required.

When running the game, I just check off the turns as I mentioned. When I reach a circled one, I roll for an encounter using the table for whichever region the players are currently in. Of course, if rolling in advance troubles your sensibilities, you could roll encounter checks once per hour at some fixed rate such as 1d8, or even at a variable rate per terrain.

My encounter tables look about like this (hey there, wanderer in the night; if you know Billy from Ottawa and might ever play in his D&D game, don't open this spoiler).

[spoiler]encounter table

I include a lot of conditional entries in the table (at night, in the wet season, etc.) in order to improve verisimilitude without having to make a more complex table. The bolded headings at the bottom (night, new moon) override any other encounter during that time.

The "W" column is what monsters this region "exports" to nearby regions. So if I roll wanderer (80-89) on this table, I would go roll on the W column of the appropriate table.[/spoiler]

On the back of the page with the encounter table, I reproduce the abbreviated statblocks of all the creatures on the table for ease of reference. In addition to hard combat stats for a creature, I like to record a few additional "soft stats", like this.

[spoiler]Giant Vulture – CR 2 NE M m-beast, 13 hp (2d8+4), AC 11 (10/11), sv 7/2/1 (+4 disease), sp 10, fly 50 (avg)
prc+9; Str+2, Dex+0, Con+2, Int-2, Wis+1, Cha-2;
bite+3 (1d8+3); at home, drop rock+3 (1d6+2 b).
Look: Black feathers, wrinkly red face, beady black eyes. React: Cruel, patient. Tactics: Circle overhead, wait to attack weakened party. Lands to attack (no flyby). Morale: Low; but circles out of range. P2P: Yes, all day, heading home at sunset. Meat: 40 lbs (contam).[/spoiler]

These should be pretty self-explanatory except perhaps P2P, which stands for "Propensity to Pursue." This data helps me get up to speed to run an encounter with a creature I haven't thought about since I designed the area, which could be months ago.

Billy's picture

When travelling, I let the players specify their course in several ways:

  • Cardinal directions (unless they have lost their bearings)
  • Relative directions (forward, turn 45° right, etc.)
  • Towards/away from a visible landmark (most commonly used method)
  • Following a linear landmark (river, wall, etc.).

For keeping one's bearings in the wild, I use these rules:

[spoiler]Becoming oriented. You can orient yourself easily enough in town, or when obvious landmarks are visible (such as mountains). You can also use the sun to get your bearings, though not easily at midday, when the sun is directly overhead. If you know a little astronomy, you can use the stars to find north. Of course, you cannot use the sun or stars on a cloudy day.

Staying oriented. Once you have found your bearings, you can remain oriented as long as you can see a long distance. Even on a cloudy day, you can keep travelling in a straight line as long as you can see clearly where you are going and from where you have come.

Becoming disoriented. It is possible to become disoriented whenever visibility is limited. This includes when travelling through forest, in a deep valley, through fog or rain, at night, or underground. It is especially hard to keep one’s orientation when travelling along a winding route with many turns.

In these circumstances, the DM may call for an Intuit Direction check from the character who is leading the way. On a success, the party remains oriented. On a failure, characters lose their bearings and the party may veer off course while travelling. Note that the party as a whole either remains oriented or becomes disoriented. If nobody can agree which way is north, it’s just as bad as if nobody knows.[/spoiler]

When the party veers off course, I keep it simple: a 50% chance of turning 45° to the left, 50% chance to the right. If they fail their navigation check by 10 or more, I assume they travel in circles for the next hour or so. The real punishment for losing your bearings is that I stop using cardinal directions in my descriptions; everything becomes "ahead", "off to your right", and so on.

ffilz's picture

Thanks, that's a lot of help (and your one of the few who don't call West Marches a Hex Crawl...). I love your encounter table. I'm also looking at the "Overloaded Encounter Die" (one example here: https://retiredadventurer.blogspot.com/2013/05/a-procedure-for-wandering...).

I like your thoughts on navigation.

As to what to fit in a 2 hour session, it's just going to be a matter of fact that it may take a session or two to get to a destination. I don't want to make the wilderness travel too easy, otherwise it just becomes a "pick which mini-dungeon you want to do tonight" episodic campaign. I probably do need to have fewer random encounters per unit time than I might normally be inclined to, but I really do want to keep the danger of travel aspect.

As to pre-rolling encounters, I used to take the a per-unit time chance of no encounter, and work out the cumulative probability of having an encounter after 1 unit, 2 units, 3 units, etc. Then you roll d100 and look up on the probability table and that tells you when you have the next encounter. If you roll towards the top end, you didn't have an encounter in how ever many units of time that represents, and you roll again (so let's say 10 units is a 98% chance of having an encounter, and you roll a 99-00, then you roll again and add 10 units to what the next roll indicates. If encounter probability changes before the roll indicates, you just re-roll on the chart with the new probability starting at the time the probability changed.

Hmm, you could even use the pre-rolled encounters and look at which table you expect to be used as you approach the time, and check if there should be a foreshadowing. For example, if your encounter table had weather on it and the encounter at unit 8 was going to be a huge storm, you could foreshadow that with ominous clouds on the horizon at unit 7. If the encounter was going to be a lair, you could have a bonus encounter check the unit before for a patrol from the lair.

ffilz's picture

For things like the Intuit Direction, would you use a fixed DC, or are there modifiers? I'm thinking about how I want to run non-combat task resolution. It would be nice to have non-combat skills that have a rating that follows the same scheme as combat skills (some class level + some skill level + one or two attribute modifiers, usually class level or skill level is divided by 2). I'm inclined to set up some side-classes to hold these skills and the side class also allows improvement of Alertness or Charisma.

Billy's picture

Personally I like variable DC's for skills. This lets you create different areas that are easier and harder for the characters to explore, which in turn can be a useful tool to set up your difficulty gradients.

For Intuit Direction, I'd have a table something like this.

  • Easy (DC 10) - Cloudy day in slightly rough terrain
  • Medium (DC 15) - Heavy rain or fog, or forested terrain, or very rough terrain
  • Hard (DC 20) - Bad weather AND bad terrain; or overcast night (navigation by torchlight)
  • Very Hard (DC 25) - Bad terrain on an overcast night, twisting underground caves
  • Nearly Impossible (DC 30) - Twisting caves with no light at all (dropped your torch in a pit...)

Then I'd tape that to the inside of my DM screen and refer to it when necessary until I memorized it through use. Those are D&D 3.0 type DC's of course. I don't know exactly how all this would translate into the cold iron normal distribution system.

The main factor in setting the class progression will be the slope of how it advances with level; then you can set the DC's around that and the desired probability of success. A steeper slope will mean that high DC's can be used more effectively to "gate" low-level characters out of an area. A shallower slope will mean that it is easier for mixed-level parties to play together.

ffilz's picture

Good thoughts on DC. Once I decide what the skills are and how the ratings are determined, I can decide what DC to set. Intuit Direction DCs of course will mostly not be able to be leveled by region, though there could be regions with funky magic that distorts the sense of direction that adds to the above DCs.

One thing I'm working through is how granular to make the skills.

What I need to consider is do you need a character really dedicated to this stuff (like they sacrifice significant combat and magic ability)? In any case, how many PCs do you need to cover the needs of an expedition? How does the set of available skills and how many you can choose impact the ability to plan and make choices for expeditions?

With a revolving cast of characters on expeditions, you can have specialists and try to recruit the player whose PC has a specialty you need for a particular expedition.

With a static cast of characters, you either use specialization to give different PCs in the static group different opportunities to shine, or everyone is basically interchangeable, which then makes the tasks not so interesting. But with specialization and a static set of PCs, does it actually reduce player choices because certain avenues of exploration aren't practical?

Obviously the issues of missing specialization can somewhat be handled by hiring NPCs, but that goes against the West Marches idea, and also turns the specialization into a resource management task instead of something to differentiate PCs.