by Mike Shea on 15 June 2020
A west marches campaign is a particular style of RPG campaign, easily transported to D&D, that has some of the following criteria:
These characteristics are, of course, argued about on the internet but those are the ones I took from it based on this excellent StackExchange thread on West Marches style games. This article isn't going to delve into the criteria of scheduling that makes West Marches style games so unique and instead the types of adventures a DM would put together when running Grendleroot games that focus more on open discovery instead of an overarching story.
This style of game fits perfectly with Deepdelver's Enclave and Blackclaw Mountain in Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot. In this article we'll look at how to change up Ruins of the Grendleroot to fit a more open player-driven exploration game instead of the more situation and hook-driven style of the adventures as written.
The adventures and locations in Ruins of the Grendleroot center around a hub of exploration called Deepdelver's Enclave. This outpost sits on the edge of the ruins of dozens of civilizations and hundreds of monstrous dwellings. The people of Deepdelver's Enclave are varied and yet all hold the thrill of adventure and exploration deep in their hearts.
Deepdelver's Enclave fits perfectly in a loose campaign of exploration and discovery. Characters can receive information about new areas to discover from many in the Enclave, even rival exploration groups they may want to outwit. Baelon the Beardless, the unofficial town elder of Deepdelver's Enclave may invite them to join his adventuring guild and learn of new places to discover from the guild and its fellow members. For an even simpler beginning we can steal the quest driver from Dragon of Icespire Peak and have a simple quest board outside of the Dragon's Fangs, Baelon's common house for adventurers.
Each location in Deepdelver's Enclave includes a small story hook that the characters can discover and explore beyond the major adventure quests in the book.
Deepdelver's Enclave is a perfect central hub for a West Marches style campaign.
Each adventure in Ruins of the Grendleroot has a strong start; an event that drives the characters into the rest of the adventure. This is intended to help the DM dive right into the adventure and get the characters thrown into the action and on their way. These strong starts do not fit a West Marches style game particularly well. There's little choice once the strong start begins as to which direction the characters will take. The obvious choice is to follow the lead.
In our West Marches style game we'll remove these strong starts and, instead, set each adventure out as an optional area for exploration. We'll pull out the urgency of each adventure and replace it with a seed of discovery; an item the characters can acquire, information they can learn, problems they can solve.
Removing the urgency doesn't mean we have to change the storylines. We might drop a quest that a mysterious priest has gone missing in the Forest of Iron and his apprentice seeks his safe return. When they find him, they discover that he is trying to destroy the Grendleroot and must decide whether to capture him or put him down.
Other times we may want to remove the urgency completely from a location. Instead of the White Queen saving the mountain from the destruction of the Grendleroot, the characters might find a quest to receive a bit of valuable information or historical lore from the vampiric queen near Redstone. This lore may be a powerful spell scroll or a piece of history but if the characters never acquire it, that's perfectly fine.
Here's a list of quests you can drop in front of your players that convert the adventure seeds in Ruins of the Grendleroot into quests from which the players can choose. It also includes some DM notes to show you how to change the adventure to fit the more passive exploration style of a West Marches style game. These quests are designed to remove the urgency from the location and focus more on open exploration of locations instead of solving problems.
Quest: Restore Starsong Tower. The orb above Starsong Tower has begun filling the minds of the people of Deepdelver's Enclave with nightmares. Enter the tower and restore the light that once flowed from the orb above.
DM Notes. This adventure can be run as-written. It already avoids the urgency found in some of the other adventures. This makes for a good introductory adventure for 1st level characters and you may want to make this the first quest they can complete before expanding out into other quests.
Quest: Explore the Temple of the Forgotten God. A series of tunnels has recently opened exposing a temple to gods long forgotten. Explore these tunnels and acquire the artifacts and knowledge of elven religions long dead.
DM Notes. We can remove the Sophie Wyndrunner hook of this adventure and simply let the characters explore the temple. They may find rivals or enemies among the cultists who have already entered the lost chambers. The characters may still face the dying god and can choose to become disciples or let the god's power die.
Quest: Explore Violet Falls. The lost gnomish city of Violet Falls has been discovered! Travel into the surrounding tunnels, find a way in, and explore the wonders of the gnomes of Violet Falls.
DM Notes. We can remove the attack from the gnome zombies at the start of this adventure or move them to an encounter along the journey when the players decide to take on this undertaking. We can leave Gemtooth and his delusions of grandeur in place if we wish or make him a simple powerful villain who leads the undead of Violet Falls.
Quest: Fistful of Copper? Two local bands of orcs and hobgoblins have been causing trouble for Deepdelver's Enclave. Find a way to get rid of these groups or stop them from harassing our explorers.
DM Notes. We remove the omnipresent threat of the orcs and hobgoblins from this adventure and thus give our players the choice of ignoring the threat completely. The orcs and hobgoblins aren't going to attack Deepdelver's Enclave so we can remove that entire side of the adventure. The characters can still work one group against the other or simply wipe them both out but imminent attack isn't an issue.
Quest: Find the Lost Priest. A blind priest of light named Ardus Fane has gone missing in the Forest of Iron. Please return the beloved priest to his apprentice, Cava Suntouched.
DM Notes. For this adventure we can remove the immediate threat that Fane will blow up the mountain. He may actually be trying to do so when the characters confront him in the Forest of Iron but we can remove the immediate threat so players don't feel like they're forced to deal with it.
Quest: Explore the Sunken Temple of the Aboleths. Deep delvers have found a sunken temple once belonging to the aboleths! Explore this vast temple and return with tales of the mysteries you find within.
DM Notes. We can remove the whole mind-bending strong start of this adventure and simply let the characters know that the place has been discovered. People may go missing down there and Abrim Hesh may still be operating there along with the grimlocks. The overall threat to Deepdelver's removed the players are free to explore the location or not.
Quest: Explore the Cell of the White Sun. Explorers have located a strange vault to the Order of the White Sun deep in the mountain. Rumors speak of a powerful sun sword once belonging to a legendary White Sun knight still held within the cell.
DM Notes. This can be a fun treasure hunt with the twist that the being trapped by the knight in question is still inside. We can keep Dalmus Spiritheart and the Blades of Dawn in the adventure, with the characters discovering them at the site and maybe learning a little bit about them in town before they go. The urgency of the strong start can be removed and the rest can stay much the same.
Quest: Learn the lost lore held by the White Queen. A being of great and terrible power sleeps in a vault near Redstone Village. Someone able to treat with this being could learn magic and lore lost for centuries.
DM Notes. The threat of the Grendleroot needs to be removed from this adventure to make it more laid-back for a West Marches style quest. The whole main motivation for this adventure can be replaced with spells for any wizards in your party, a powerful magic item, or valuable lore. The motivation needs to be strong enough that the characters are willing to face a vampire to complete their quest.
Quest: Explore the Den of Bones. Deep in the Den of Bones, a lair where the monsters of the mountain travel to die, lies a pool of green liquid. This liquid is very dangerous but fetches a great price for the right buyer. Travel to the den and acquire a bottle of this liquid and your future is set!
DM Notes. For this version of the adventure we remove the entire storyline of Ruth Willowmane's hunters. We might keep the assassins in the adventure, however, as rivals who seek the poison of the worm for their own murderous use. The characters may learn that the assassins are heading to the liquid themselves and follow the same tower-defense style game once they arrive at the Den of Bones. The urgency to get there, however, is removed when the assassins' motivation to kill Ruth is removed.
Quest: Delve into the Black Cathedral. We have found it! Hidden in chambers deep within the mountain is the Black Cathedral, the alien fortress built to contain the mysterious Grendleroot. Travel to the cathedral and be the first to lay eyes on the mysterious Grendleroot.
DM Notes. In this modification we remove Alvana's murderous rampage and let the characters choose if they want to find the Grendleroot themselves. We might keep Alvana in the adventure as a rival explorer or villain who still plans to use the Grendleroot for evil but such an event doesn't come into the story until the characters arrive at the location and discover her dark deeds.
Beyond the adventures above, Ruins of the Grendleroot has numerous other locations you can expand into full-fledged adventures. Appendix C, the Rise of the Black Star, includes locations for high-level adventures and, at the end of the appendix, are twelve additional adventure locations perfect for filling out into a full adventure. In a West Marches style game you can drop in these location seeds into whatever vehicle you use to let the players know about other locations. Jobs on a quest board, rumors at the local tavern, or old journals or maps found in other explored locations are great ways to drop these potential locations in front of the players.
If you're seeking more potential adventure locations for a West Marches style Grendleroot campaign, you can use the following tips and tools to quickly build further locations to explore. Each location likely needs the following criteria:
You'll notice that many of these steps follow the steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. There are some exceptions. In particular, we aren't worried about a strong start here because such adventures are driven from the players' desires to travel there more than some event that pushes them there. Likewise outlining potential scenes isn't important because such scenes happen as the characters explore. Secrets and clues, monsters, NPCs, locations, and treasure all have as much value when building these adventures as they do for any adventure we run in D&D.
Here are the steps we might take when building a West Marches style Grendleroot adventure location.
Generate locations. Locations can be generated from two lists: an origin (who created the location) and a structure type (what was it physically built to do). You can use the tables in appendix B in Ruins of the Grendleroot, the random monuments tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook, or the dungeon tables in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide to generate ideas for adventure and dungeon locations. Mix in the origin table for relics from either appendix B of Ruins of the Gendleroot or the Lazy DM's Workbook to wrap the location in an origin such as elvish, infernal, or undead.
Develop motivations. Motivations for adventures in West Marches are generally looser and less urgent than you'd have for a more story-focused game. In general, any motivation you create should be interesting enough to get a player's attention but not so critical that they can't pass on it. Here are ten example motivations you can use or modify to suit your adventure.
Choose maps. Good locations need great maps. I'm a huge fan of Dyson Logos maps and suggest poking through his nearly 900 maps to find ones for your locations. Here are ten potential maps that work well for various locations:
Choose monsters. There are numerous ways to choose monsters for any given adventure. Though designed for on-the-road encounters, the random encounter list in appendix B of Ruins of the Grendleroot may help you choose monsters to populate a location. You can also use the random dungeon monster tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook or the random underdark encounters from Xanathar's Guide to Everything to randomly select some monsters. You can also use the list below to choose a monster type and then fill in the details with specific monsters based on that theme:
Select an optional boss. Your location may have an optional boss. This could be a more powerful member of a particular group of monsters or it might be a more powerful type of monster. You can use the same tables to randomly select monsters and see what inspires you if you can't easily think one up.
Add one or more NPCs. Good adventures include options for all three pillars of play: exploration, roleplaying, and combat. The locations we've built so far have good options for exploration and combat but not so much for NPC interaction. We can fix this by dropping in one or two NPCs intended more likely to be talked to than killed. Some monster groups have this built-in but in other cases we'll want to add in some NPCs. For a quick NPC, consider rolling on the Donjon NPC generator and adding them to your adventure list. Maybe they're a prisoner, maybe they're a rival, maybe they're a spy for another group. You choose how this NPC came to the location and let your players choose how to interact with them.
Consider your secrets and clues. Secrets and lore can be their own rewards in such games of exploration. Once you have an idea what your location is about and who is there you can jot down ten secrets that the characters might uncover while exploring the location. This might be further locations the characters might travel to. It might be pieces of a scavenger hunt to a powerful magic item. It might be ancient lore about the location and how it fits into the world.
Add an optional complication. Some adventures benefit from having an added complication to shake things up. You certainly don't need a complication but if any of the ideas in the following list spice things up, you may consider them. Here's a list of potential complications:
Add treasure or a reward. All good locations need treasure. You may even want to telegraph this treasure to the characters (and the players) before they bother to head out to the location. The treasure itself can be the primary motivation to go to a location in the first place and this might make the strongest adventure of all. A magical sword is said to rest in the tomb of an evil dead king. That's all the adventure most characters need. Grab a map, some skeletons, specters, and a wight, and you're off to the races.
To choose treasure, you can roll on the treasure tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Tables F, G, H, and I all have powerful magic items that are sure to grab the attention of your players. You can also use the magic item and relic generation tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook to add more treasure. To roll up treasure quickly, consider the Donjon treasure generator.
Running a player-driven campaign fits perfectly well with the atmosphere of high adventure and exploration of Ruins of the Grendleroot. Blackclaw Mountain was designed to be a nearly infinite realm of chambers, tunnels, ruins, and caverns filled with ancient mystery and tales of high fantasy. Even in a story-driven campaign offering up alternative paths for such exploration can expand your campaign in new directions and give your players greater control over the types of adventures they want to have. Hopefully this article gave you the tools and inspiration you need to run your own open-ended adventures in the depths of Blackclaw Mountain.