Discussion about West Marches Inspired Campaign

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.

Thinking about skills more. I don’t want too big a skill like Survival that covers everything. On the other hand, I don’t want to get so small you need 6 people all having several skills to cover most of what you need. On the other hand, if I’m just having a single party with 2-4 players, maybe a single skill like “scout” that you spend experience on in the same way you spend experience on Fighter or Magic User would make sense since there aren’t many characters and there’s only a single party. Smaller skills where you have to put together a skill set for the expedition at hand make more sense with the rotating roster of a full on West Marches style game.

I’m wondering how one would make cartography/surveying work well. One of Ben Robbins’ maxims was that he wouldn’t comment on or correct the player’s map. I suppose if a party actually went out with gear to actually survey, you could use the skill to determine the level of accuracy they get and then give them something based on actual measurements from the GM’s map. But surveying over wilderness distances would be quite a task.

And I’m not sure how to use the social skills if there are limited social contacts out in the wilderness. But maybe you don’t need that many to make the skills worthwhile, and there certainly should be some. And Cold Iron does have a Charisma attribute which needs to be useful for something… The question would be how many angles of social skill does one need.

This is a list so far I have of non-social skills:

Rowing, paddling, and poling
Active measures taken to hide.
Hide Passive measures taken to hide.
Move Silently
Move Softly
Leaving no or minimal tracks.
Lock Picking
Trap Finding
Trap Disarm

Hunting I see as Tracking and then using a weapon skill.

While I have a dislike of knowledge skills, maybe there are some things that make sense.

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.

I dunno, bumbling around for ideas…



It’s hard to give specific answers when it sounds like you’re starting with a system which is (to me) unfamiliar, and then modifying it in some other, various ways.

However, I’ll comment that I wonder how (and if at all!) the “West Marches” concept will work if you only have a single adventuring party. I think the social competition aspect of the West Marches is a big part of what makes it work, and it may flounder with a “regular-sized” group. However, of course, it does depend a great deal on your particular players - I’m not saying that will definitely happen, just pointing at something which might be a certain tendency.

I have been wondering how much dependency there is on the social competition and party formation during actual game play. People do sandbox play without that aspect. What actually is getting me pumped is the setup that creates the “leveled” wilderness. Cold Iron doesn’t work well for dungeon exploration due to the length of time it takes to run a combat, and the impact of a serious encounter (and only serious encounters have much impact on resources). That makes the every few days typical nature of wilderness encounters work well, a serious encounter will send the party looking for a way to hole up, or even have to retreat to town, and a less serious but non-trivial encounter leaves you down a little bit and at more risk should you have a 2nd encounter that day (but that feature would wear out with dungeon exploration - making people retreat to rest up after a couple encounters). But OD&D and AD&D’s “meet anything” wilderness has always made me feel like wilderness is only for high level PCs. The way I used to run Cold Iron, the wilderness encounters would usually be targeted at the PCs level, but then they lose any opportunity for risk management. Bring in a leveled wilderness, and now the PCs decide where to go and what risk to assume. I think the exploration game can be fun too as long as the exploration yields character improvement (treasure and experience).

A true West Marches may be able to get away with less reward because the social competition makes the actual exploration the primary reward. I’m hoping that is still enough of a reward to make the game more interesting that just an extended “Steve Jackson’s Melee & Wizard war game”…