Editor: Guest author Jason Lutes writes about his lengthy fantasy sandbox game and how he made it happen, West Marches style!
I recently wrapped up a 40-session “sandbox” fantasy campaign, taking a cue from the “West Marches” approach popularized by Ben Robbins (of Microscope fame). According to a series of blog posts Ben wrote to explain his methodology, his initial goals were:
- No regular game time. Every session is scheduled by the players.
- No regular party. Each session has different players, drawn from a large player pool (10-14 people).
- No regular plot. It’s a sandbox, wherein the players have complete freedom to choose where to go and what to do.
My definition of a sandbox campaign is one wherein the players can go anywhere and do anything, within the constraints of the fiction. It’s always been the most appealing form of play to me, going back to grade school days of poring over the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, high school nights playing Ultima and Odyssey: the Compleat Adventure, and attempting to run long-term games using AD&D, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Hârnmaster that never lasted past 3 sessions. The holy grail for me was that sense of pure possibility that comes from the PCs having complete freedom of choice. I was pleased when the word “emergent” came into more common use as a descriptor of a game state that grows out of the unplanned interactions of established elements, because it gave a name to that feeling.
After a long dry spell common to TTRPG players of my generation, I got back into playing regularly about 10 years ago. Over the span of time between then and now, I started a few sandbox campaigns with my local group, but none of them ever lasted more than half a dozen sessions, until 2019, when I ran one for some old friends over zoom. Using the 2nd edition version of my Freebooters on the Frontier rules (still in playtesting, but available here), we started with a funnel and then followed the survivors as they set out to explore the world. 40 sessions later, after adventuring across the wider world, they had returned to their home town and brought the proceedings to a very satisfying close. You can watch the whole thing here. I had successfully completed a sandbox campaign for the first time, and it was among the top two or three most rewarding gaming experiences of my life. I wanted more.
Setup and Playerbase
Thus the desire to run a sandbox in the West Marches style, with a more ambitious world, larger player-base (ideally populated by people with whom I had not played much), and schedule wrangling left up to the players. I did some research, reading all of Ben Robbins’ blog posts on the subject, various other articles in various places, and Izirion’s Enchiridion, an enormously useful guide written by Dom Liotti & Sam Sorensen.
I love collaborative world-building, in particular the part after everyone spitballs, where you have to dig in and find connections and figure out how disparate elements make sense together. I dubbed the campaign “The Western Wilds” and set up a Google poll with a bunch of questions for players to answer, with the goal of shaping the setting around the most popular answers, and invited interested members of a few different online communities to take it. You can peruse the responses here.
After the results came in, I took all of that info and started to build up the world. We had owl-folk (“buma”) and vole-folk (“alfiran”) jackal-folk (“ibnaqwan”), and ape-folk (humans), and a bunch of regions and locations and ideas that needed to be integrated into a whole. I think it took me about two weeks to hammer out a basic setting guide and a map big enough to get the campaign started.
With all of that ready to go, I set up a Discord with channels devoted to specific aspects of play—setting guide, character creation procedure, in-character and out-of-character channels for the players, etc.—and invited everyone who took part in the poll to join. In the end the Discord had about 35 members. Of those, 15 people ended up playing, and that player pool broke down into three tiers: casual (7 people, each playing 2-3 sessions), engaged (5 people, each playing 9-16 sessions), and dedicated (3 people, each playing 27-34 sessions).
After polling the players to figure out which weeknights were most convenient for the most people (prioritizing my own schedule), I settled on alternating Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each session was a 3.5 hour slot (8:30pm-12:00am EST). Every month or two I posted a new slate of dates when I would be available to play.
I kept the “town opportunities” channel on the Discord populated with 6-8 “job postings,” so when the players needed ideas for missions to undertake, they always had a menu of options to choose from. I generated these using a procedure from Freebooters, embellishing the results to mesh with the setting. The players always had the option to go wherever they wanted, but most of the time they were looking for a sure payday; in the end I would say about 70% of the missions came from posted opportunities. The rest were player-initiated, and most of those were based on the politics and intrigue of the town, building eventually toward conflict with the prevailing authorities. Even though the whole campaign was framed as wilderness exploration, the emergent narrative was one of rebellion against empire.
Once a player decided they wanted to pursue a particular opportunity, the protocol was to solicit other players in the “mission planning” channel, organizing a party of up to 4 (occasionally 5, but level of engagement over zoom starts to suffer at 5 players) around one of the available play dates. The person taking the initiative was the default leader for whatever group they managed to put together. Once a party was assembled, the leader let me know which date they wanted, I put it on the calendar, and crossed it off the list of available dates.
This part was great from the GM/Judge perspective, because all I had to do was post my availability and then update the session calendar once a slot was claimed.
Thanks to the early influence of “white box” D&D, Judges Guild hexcrawls, and open world video games, when creating my own content I’ve always unconsciously followed the “Don’t prep plots, prep situations” precept (which I first saw put into words by Justin Alexander in his blog). In session prep terms, this means writing up notes about relevant elements (regions, locations, factions, NPCs, items of interest, etc.) without stringing them together into a specific storyline.
After the initial setting development, I only prepped for the next mission on the docket, whatever it might be. The idea was to minimize unnecessary work and build out the world around the PCs as their choices demanded.
The opportunity listings were just a couple of sentences. For example:
MISSING PERSON. Last seen headed toward the Ribbonwood. 350 qatae reward. See Tekinay Durmaz at Yurshad’s Rest.
Until someone chose to undertake a given mission, I knew very little about it beyond what the listing said. So, once a party committed to a mission and it was on the calendar, my job was to flesh it out. Using more procedures from Freebooters, I generated further details until I had what felt like enough of a foundation to run a session. For some missions that meant writing up a previously unexplored region of the world, along its with constituent creatures, obstacles, hazards, and dungeons; for others it meant just nailing down the details on a few key NPCs. My writeups were anywhere from 1-10 pages long in Google Docs, in 10-point type. Here’s an example of an early one. Later in the campaign, as I got better at improvising content and had less time to write, my notes were generally shorter and much more rough around the edges.
The example above was an interesting prep case. After the players decided to go for that one, I rolled some dice to figure out who Tekinay Durmaz was and learned that she was a potter whose adopted daughter had gone missing. I built out their family life a bit based on more rolls, and decided that the daughter, Kheriyah, had gone out on her own to harvest a valuable glaze ingredient from crimson beetles in the Ribbonwood. But what happened to her? I put myself in Kheriya’s shoes and played a sort of solo game, following her on her search day by day and rolling dice at various junctures. She got lost, had to forage for food, and was trying to find her way back home when, thanks to a random roll, she stumbled upon the entrance to a tomb, unearthed by a recent mudslide. One of her character traits was “curious,” so of course she was going to investigate. It did not end well. When the PCs found the remains of poor Kheriya at the end of their search, they were devastated, and they ended up having to fight the tomb guardians that had done her in. It was very satisfying on the GM/Judge side, because Kheriya’s fate had emerged organically and I knew everything that had happened to her.
Early on, I wrote up a “Prep & Session Protocol” checklist to fall back on before, during and after each session. This helped be both stay on top of my prep and aim for some degree of containment/closure within each each 3.5-hour episode; over time this became habitual.
All of this effort is of course directed toward and in support of creating an evening’s entertainment. Thanks to a pool of enthusiastic and skilled players, the laying of all that groundwork paid off in all the ways that I had hoped: participants engaged with the setting, feeling free to go anywhere and do anything, and the world grew up around them organically. I got excited every time they chose a new mission, because I got to discover the world along with them, and playing to find out what happens next in that context was deeply rewarding.
What I didn’t anticipate was the rich parallel play that grew up on the Discord. Through play-by-post roleplaying that occasionally invoked game mechanics, about half of the players stayed engaged between missions and during downtime. Entire subplots, side stories, and large-scale, campaign-altering machinations grew out of declarations in the “town activity” and “tavern talk” channels. Although it was more work for me to keep up with all of it, the overall game experience was richer than it ever could have been otherwise.
With 15 players in the pool, only 4 PCs undertaking any given mission, and parallel downtime actions transpiring on the Discord, tracking the passage of in-game time was a bit tricky. I decided to run missions consecutively, so that in the timeline of the game world no two missions could overlap. This meant that each mission needed to be a discrete experience, resolved in a single session, but in-game time was elastic within that session, stretching according to the demands of the adventure. Some missions took a day or two to complete, the longest took several weeks, and I tracked it all on a campaign calendar.
A few missions ended up needing to be broken into two parts, which meant that between part one and part two the party had to return to town, which felt like an artificial constraint. And sometimes a PC would return from one mission but need to go out again the very next day because they had signed up for the next mission, which meant they didn’t get any downtime to rest and recuperate. Overall, though, I expected more dissonance than we experienced, so for me this approach worked well.
As mentioned at the outset, our campaign lasted 40 sessions. In an odd bit of synchronicity, it took a year of real-world time and a year of in-game time, almost to the day. Reflecting back on the experience, these are the biggest takeaways:
- Town missions are fine. In all of the West Marches stuff I read, strict emphasis was placed on the need to keep the town an uncomplicated “safe zone,” in order to maintain focus on outward-bound adventure. The authors of Izirion’s Enchiridion goes so far as to say:
It’s vital that there be no adventure to be had in town. Players are naturally risk-averse; if there is an option to gain similar rewards for lower risk, they will take it. If there is adventure to be had in the safety of town, they will do that adventure over exploring every time. To push them to explore, it must be absolute that there is nothing to gain from staying in town.
I ignored this dictum in favor of following the players’ interest, wherever it might take us, and the game only benefited. As mentioned above, players initiated town-centric missions perhaps 30% of the time, and those missions were some of the best we played.
- Managing a Discord is a lot. One of the theoretical goals of a West Marches campaign is to reduce the GM’s workload by shifting scheduling responsibilities onto the players; that part worked great. When it comes to world-building, I lean into prep, so that’s on me. But maintaining the Discord took more effort than I anticipated, at times amounting to the equivalent of 3-5 simultaneous play-by-post subgames. The stuff that happened in that space was was frankly amazing in the way it deepened and enriched the campaign, so I wouldn’t want to lose it next time around; but I need to take a hard look at how to make my Discord interactions more efficient.
- Inclusivity takes effort. To the last everyone who played was kind, considerate, encouraging and supportive of each other. However, as our play culture developed over time, people who played less could feel out of the loop when it came to in-game knowledge like character relationships, recent events, and evolving setting lore. One of our players put it this way:
[…] once you “fall behind” in the lore, your engagement drops even further. I mean, I was the 4th most game-playing player with 16 games, and yet I often felt like I was missing a bunch of context since I did miss more than 50% of the games.
Some of that context was recorded on the Discord, but it could be hard to track. One small step towards addressing this might be a “situation report” and Q&A at the top of each session designed to fill in gaps and bring everyone up to speed. Some sort of enforced PC rotation could help as well, and a simple open acknowledgment of the issue could go a long way toward reducing the feeling that participants are missing out or “playing wrong.”
I Do In Fact Love This Play Style
It’s a big undertaking, it’s demanding, there’s a lot to juggle. Over time the prep could be exhausting, and I decided to wind things down when all of that started to feel like too much. But it was also among the most fun and rewarding RPG experiences of my life to date, so there’s no way I’m not going to give it another go.
My next big campaign will center on The Halls of Arden Vul, a published megadungeon. Although we’ll lose the investment and attachment that accompanies a bespoke setting, relying on pre-written content means my prep time should be drastically reduced. I’m going to implement a top-of-session “situation report” as described above, and ask players to avoid signing up for two consecutive missions in hopes of rotating more people through. On the Discord front, I’m tweaking the category and channel organization to make things a little less confusing, and I’ll be limiting my Discord interactions to certain hours in order to reduce distraction during my work day.
Here’s hoping the lessons learned from my forays into the West Marches style can be applied to good effect. Regardless, I’m excited to see what emerges from the next year of adventures.