Running a West Marches Campaign – A Flexible Approach to RPGs for Libraries

By Jennifer Burdoo

As youth services manager of a medium-sized library, and the only gamer, I have the freedom to run RPGs for kids and teens as part of my programming.

But I don’t have the freedom to do it four hours a session, once a week, every week. Space and time in a library are not as available as they might be in a home, or a game store that can stay open past midnight.

And forget about “session zero” – I simply can’t expect the same kids to show up two weeks in a row.

Even teenagers, with their greater independence, have so much else to do that they aren’t precisely reliable. And when it comes to tweens and children, there’s simply no contest. Gaming doesn’t hold the same cachet or urgency for parents as, say, piano lessons or soccer practice.

When I first started running games, I was a rookie GM with rookie players, and I ran two standard “everyone-travels-together-through-the-wilderness” plots. Both sputtered to ignominious ends after maybe six sessions as players or staff got sick, went on leave, or graduated. When the party leader isn’t present (did he desert or something?), or the wizard doesn’t show up to help fight the dragon the party met last session, issues naturally arise. It’s the age-old problem of missing vital players, but it’s more likely in a library.

So if your players don’t visit the library at a regular time, in the long term, or as a group, what to do?

My answer was arrived at via several more years of trial, error, and sheer accident. I didn’t realize that a game designer named Ben Robbins had already formalized my solution. It’s called the West Marches campaign. You can read more about it here: Grand Experiments – West Marches.

The basic parts to this sort of campaign:

  • It’s played whenever the players and GM are ready, rather than a set time.
  • There are not 4-6 players and characters, but a pool that might contain a dozen or more of each. They need not all meet at once.
  • There is no long-term plot followed by all players. There can’t be, because not all the players will be at the table at the same time.
  • There is a permanent “home base” for characters to return to when they aren’t adventuring.
  • The rest of the “world” is a blank slate, ready to be explored by the characters one session at a time, after which they return to base.

What does this mean to the library staff running a regular program?

It means that you don’t need regular attendees. I run mine by waiting for the most crowded or disruptive moment and calling out, “Who wants to play DnD?” Then I round up whoever is interested. The key thing is that having kids who have played in previous sessions is a bonus. The game goes on either way, because the party is drawn from a larger pool and anyone can play. This is extra useful in a library setting, because it takes less preplanning. I also provide pregenerated characters (which the players can change as they like over time).

How did I accidentally recreate this? I invented The Queen’s Own Troubleshooters.

My campaign area is actually a massive “city of adventure.” It has a backstabbing noble class, every guild you can think of, a swarming and grimy underclass, a massive sewer system, a magical university, and for wilderness adventures, a Royal Hunting Preserve.

Also a City Guard, and the players are all part of its specialized “monster-hunting” unit.  But it’s not a 4-6 man “classic” party – it contains scores of people, with whatever mix of characters the players are ready to run. The members can come from any background – as adventurer-types, they’re not suited to normal military discipline, so this “special” unit is the perfect place for them. Think of it as a government-sanctioned Adventurer’s Guild.

See, it doesn’t matter who sits at the table, how many there are, or what their levels or classes are – they are all the Captain could find at that moment to throw at the day’s challenge. If they don’t show up next session, that’s alright, because someone else will. The rest are clearly on leave, sentry duty, in hospital after the beating they got last session, or peeling potatoes. There can be two players, or eight. If there’s just one, I add a few NPCs for him to command.

Does someone have to leave mid-session? He’s knocked out by the monster of the week. Someone shows up mid-session? She arrives panting with a cry of, “The Captain sent reinforcements!”

Effectively, each individual session is a “one-shot.” Players can dip in and out. The campaign, as Robbins suggests, is in the map the players build, and news of other players’ exploits. It’s a big city, and the players can be sent to any corner of it – but they always return to the barracks at the end of the day, so their story need not be abandoned if players don’t make it next session.

The city has newspapers, and the NPCs write reports and letters – I write these and collect them in a binder for players to read if they wish. (It doubles as an introduction for new and prospective players.) If you must have a campaign, it can be built up slowly this way, with different players piecing together clues. Experience works the same way – players can build up their characters and return to them in later sessions, or just build a new one. It’s up to them, providing a little agency amidst the railroading of a mission-based campaign. Improving characters is a bonus to reward those who return, but it doesn’t stop new characters from appearing.

In the event, it worked fairly well as a long-term framework. Drop-in, newbie, and experienced players can all feel welcome. And it’s easy on the gamemaster, who needn’t worry too much about plot or recurring characters unless they wish to. If the GM is a staff member, it also makes it easier to plan; no signup required, and flexible scheduling. With simple enough rules, it can be run on the spur of the moment, for whatever period of time desired.

So don’t feel hemmed in by the traditional campaign; relax and take adventure as it comes!

One comment

  1. This is great! I did something similar with the Blue Rose campaign we played for a while. They were all members of the Sovereign’s Own traveling undercover as a group of traveling…wedding planners! It kept things light, and we could switch people in and out really easily. I highly recommend this approach. City campaigns are great for this also. Awesome job!

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