The date is October 19, 2019. An otherwise unremarkable day of the year, but for a handful of really passionate DnD enthusiasts this is the day that life changes forever. This is the day that All Things DnD posted the video “How a Player Turned out to be the Secret BBEG of the session”, and in doing so became the impetus for a 2 year long westmarch unlike anything the world has seen before. This is the story of Arcadia. This is the story of how one video in 2019 spawned the greatest westmarch campaign of all time.
It all started in the comment section of All Things DnD’s “Secret BBEG” video. Many people commented how they wished they too could take part in a westmarch server like the video described, and one person who was apparently affiliated with the DM team of that game decided to start one. That gentleman went by the discord handle of “Chef”, and on that day he posted a link to a discord server which I and many other people ended up clicking. I was still personally brand new to TTRPG’s at the time, having only participated in a Pathfinder game previously and just barely beginning to scratch the surface with DnD 5e. In those very early days there were well over 40 of us on the server. None of us had any prior experience with a westmarch before, so we all looked to Chef for guidance. Chef did what a chef does and he started cooking. He quickly assembled a team of DM volunteers and launched a poll for what the name of our world should be. And thus Arcadia was born.
Chef began the server centered around one city called Tarster, which would end up becoming our central hub throughout the rest of the game. From there, it was off to the races! The vast majority of us were new to dnd, we approached the game as something wondrous and magical. Because we didn’t know what the limitations of what the DnD 5e system were in those days, our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities.
At first, DM’s were still trying to figure out how to run sessions and what the actual plot of the game would be. Chef had started this server completely on a whim with no actual long-term plan, and we were swelling with players almost immediately due to the popularity of the All Things DnD’s video. This basically meant the DM team, which again consisted largely of people who were new to DM’ing who had never run a westmarch, needed time to make plans for how to run the actual game. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, because while the dms were planning the many players were allowed to roll up their characters and rp with each other in a free and practically unsupervised environment.
Furthermore, to help keep player attention every character who wanted was allowed to have a property for their character where other PC’s could go visit them. This property could be a store, a tavern, a pet shop, a blacksmith, or whatever else the player felt like running. Common items were listed and given a gold cost as players greedily used their starting gold to stock caltrops, grease jars, candles, ale, parchment, and any number of other things in the hopes of selling them to others. Players were also allowed to run an NPC or two within their own establishments, effectively giving them mini-dm powers within their own walls.
Turns out, when you put a bunch of really creative and talented people in a room together who don’t know what the rules are yet and say “hey you’re free to do what you want until we figure things out,” those creative people will get very creative. We had Prattle’s Provocative Pronouncements, where PC’s could get free advice from Prattle the Kobold for one gold piece. We had Galoak’s Travelling Pet shop where adventurers could buy a whole range of animal companions from cats and dogs, to giant scorpions and sabretooth tigers. And Miracles R Us, a little miracle shop set up in the church of Abserd (shoutout to Puffin Forest), where in exchange for a donation of electrum people could have minor miracles granted like making stale bread taste like grape juice, or be told about visions of the great hero Abserd.
That first week was thus a marathon of raw unfiltered roleplay. Characters meeting, getting to know each other, beating each other to a bloody pulp, and then going inside the tavern to drink to their new camaraderie. Furthermore, all the rp was done through text which has a few unique advantages over roleplaying live around the table or in voice chat. Primarily, it gives the player time to actually think about what they’ll have their character do and gives the player the chance to use strong descriptive words with lots of imagery and emotion. It’s like watching a fantasy novel get written right before your eyes.
People right from the get go put so much depth, emotion, and personality into their characters that it was impossible not to instantly fall in love. And that initial character depth only got deeper with time due to the particular advantage of our play by post format. Play by post often draws a lot of criticism from the DnD community for being a slower format that’s not as improvisational as sitting around a table or in voice chat — and that is indeed true. However, the use of text to convey our characters, gestures, facial expressions, particular speech patterns and accents, as well as their inner thoughts allowed for the PC’s to be fleshed out in ways that couldn’t be played live without being a professionally trained actor, and helped make sure that those interactions weren’t lost to time, but could be read by people who weren’t there when they happened.
The depth of expression that our format had, encouraged some powerful role play later down the line. So much so that we were able to outwit deadly necromancers through sheer force of roleplay alone and give back to the channel that started it all. For those of you who are familiar with the All Things DnDs video, “Party Outsmarts The Evil Necromancer With Epic Roleplaying,” you will have heard about the time when a group of our players, exhausted and unable to fight their way out, used roleplay and skills to escape a necromancers gelatinous cube pit. For those of you not familiar, go check that video out, All Things DnD himself called it an example of the way DnD should be played.
This story is just one example of the kind of depth that was possible in our format, and there were many more like it. Our server was loaded with interesting and creative characters all of whom are worthy of videos and posts unto themselves. There was Prattle, the Kobold bard who spoke with extra ‘sssss’ in every sentence and called everyone who wasn’t a Kobold a “Nobold”. Chere, the flirtatious aasimar drow rogue who could make even a hardened drunken sailor blush. Ved the chaotic half-elf ranger with a deeply passionate burning hatred for all things elvish. Bats the Battle Barrel, a halfling who lived-in, fought-in, and generally just got around in an actual barrel. Arkus, the half-orc noble’s son and master of the spear, who would rather be fishing down at the docks. Tariel, the Paladin of Tyr who would do almost anything for his church. Alice, the shadowy girl from a noble house with a dark secret. And dozens more. With a server full of creative and imaginative people playing interesting and robust characters, and a team of passionate DMs eager to guide the world, all while being led by someone with experience it seemed like we were ready for success.
And then, the first shoe dropped. Within about the second week of the server, Chef had to step down as owner of the server due to personal reasons. Suddenly, Arcadia was left stranded without a leader. Before the campaign had even really begun, the remaining DM Team were left leaderless and had no clue what to do. That should have been the end of Arcadia right then and there. But that is where the blessing in disguise from earlier kicked in; the players had already had time to roleplay and bond with their characters, and as a result they were excited and eager to go ahead anyway. The DM’s didn’t want to disappoint, either, so they pulled up their bootstraps and went ahead. A new head DM was picked and slowly, cautiously they began running actual sessions.
Without someone with experience to guide the DM Team, they often ended up having to make things up as they went. None of the DMs on the team had any experience with westmarches, and most of them were new to DMing all together. It was a “blind leading the blind” kind of situation. At the time, no one really knew that traditionally a Westmarch was structured by having a group of players assigned to a particular DM. It wasn’t known that these separate parties would work away from one another and rarely, if ever, meet, or that all the while those DM’s would coordinate with each other behind the scenes.
Instead, the DMs of Arcadia pioneered a system where each DM acted independently to create their own quests and storylines, which would then get posted to a public quest board in the guild hall of Tarster’s Adventurers Guild. Then, any player who signed up for any DM’s quest could participate in that session. This meant that game sessions were flexible, and you never knew who else might be in your party. This only further encouraged people to role play and meet each-other’s characters and knit the community closer. Also, with a player base of between 20 and 30 active PC’s, Arcadia had the resources to do some really large scale projects, which led to the kicking off of the first main event of the campaign; a massive 16-player raid.
The premise of that first big raid was simple: a clan of gnolls had been kidnapping children from the city and surrounding countryside and had constructed a fortress for themselves on a hill. There had been half a dozen “Gnoll Quests” leading up to it run by a few different DMs collaborating. Even other, seemingly unconnected stories involving goblins and bandits made sure to build up the gnoll threat in the background. Players were hyped. They prepared spells, ran investigations, even organized a meetup where they roleplayed meeting up in a tavern to discuss strategy, completely on their own initiative and without needing any prompting from the DMs.
When the event began, we were a veritable raid party, 16 adventurers strong . As an added bonus, the DM running the raid gave the raiding party a friendly giant named Dumbo manning a trebuchet as an ally, based on actions that players had taken in a previous session. It was EPIC. We charged the enemy fortress, battered down their front gates, and felled many foes in a blaze of glory. Taking their arrows and spears on the chest, we mowed straight through them and eventually made our way to the kidnapped children, where we arrived just in the nick of time to prevent them from being sacrificed in a rakshasa summoning ritual. The fort was cleared, and everyone from the head DM down to the newest player was hooked.
From that point Arcadia settled into a groove. Players would rp in the open world freely, sometimes with DM’s running the rp, other times just between themselves. Then, for level up and actual story progression, DM’s would post quests to the in-world adventures guild, to which players would then sign-up for and complete in order to earn money and experience. DM’s also got better about having maps on hand which made combats easier to track and visualize. Pro tip for any DM’s running online games on a budget: Google Draw is an excellent, easy to use, and most importantly free tool where you can place maps and tokens. It isn’t as flashy as Roll20 or Tabletop Simulator or what have you, but it gets the job done and anyone with a google account can access it without issue.
For the first 8-10 months the campaign didn’t have an actual main plot, nor any solid world lore behind it. Instead, what ended up developing was a system where every DM essentially ran their own campaigns and storylines in their own corner of the world within a shared setting. While this did have the drawback of causing the game to lack an overall direction, there were some advantages as well. DMs were able to experiment more with their ideas, and since many of the DMs were new and didn’t have a clear example of where the limits and the boundaries should be, this space to learn proved valuable. For example, there were players interacting with deities such as Ealistraee as early as level 5 during this time, which was later agreed to be too early in the game. Also, most of the DMs had the impression that all gods and goddesses, regardless of moral alignment, tended to be, if not outright cruel, at least indifferent to the cares or concerns of the PCs. As a result, deities tended to be handled very poorly early on, and resentments against them built up over time among some of the PCs. This time for learning helped keep that from growing worse, and in fact it would end up coming into play later when the DM team did finally get the campaign moving in a focused direction, but it would be a long road to get there.
Problems aside, the game itself was fun, and largely player-led. Some players banded together to form their own consortium of craftsmen, calling themselves “the Refinery”. They made some of the best magic items in the campaign. Standing in competition with them was the lone artificer Kevin, of “Kevin’s Crazy Deals”. The rivalry between them was equal parts riveting and hilarious to the rest of the player base, as these two manufacturers competed for customers and crafting recipes and engaged in advertising and sales to undercut one another. Chere, the drow aasimar rogue mentioned earlier, went around the city and basically started adopting edgy loner PC’s to come live with her. She made it a point to form a sort of surrogate family for lost and wayward souls. Prattle the Kobold went and made a bunch of Nobold friends who taught him all about life outside the Kobold caves — especially flavors and tastes, which he would happily recreate for anyone who wanted to learn “Nobold Secret Tasstess” via the Prestidigitation cantrip. And once we finally started to get a main plot rocking, Ved the ranger became a candidate to become the next king.
Bit by bit, the world began to flesh itself out. The DM’s took their own little sections of the world and grew them beautifully. Tarster continued to serve as the central hub city, and the rest of the world developed in reference to it. In the far south of the continent, the small but technologically advanced Queendom of Mercillia raised spires of iron with enough magic to decimate armies. The Birchwood Forests surrounding Tarster came alive with small towns and secret locations like the ‘Kobold Caves’ where friendly Kobolds lived as a happy communal tribe waiting for the return of the Great Dragon. A secret enclave of butterfly-fey called ‘Schmetterlings’ was discovered, who ended up becoming great friends to the adventurers of Tarster. In the Hiyen Mountains, the snowy magical nation of Swordlake ruled by a theocracy of Aasimar sorcerers bloomed. The history of Tarster and the Arcadian Empire which preceded it was slowly revealed, and with each day the world grew deeper, richer and more complex.
However, even though the world was steadily becoming more developed thanks to the DM team’s tireless efforts, it still didn’t add up to a cohesive whole. The truth was, as individually creative and talented as each person on the DM team was, they still had trouble coordinating with each other. Every DM had basically just taken their own little corner of the world and decided to develop it the way they wanted. What they came up with was magical, but like threads scattered on the wind, it just didn’t weave together.
Things went on like this for a while in Arcadia. Time went on, life happened, some DMs left the team or became less active, as did some players. Those DMs who remained kept clashing due to a lack of shared vision, and eventually the server began to lose its momentum. After a year of play DMs and players alike had built a great setting full of interesting PC’s and heart wrenching roleplay, but it just wasn’t ultimately going anywhere. We built a great foundation, but couldn’t agree on what the tower that would go on top of it should look like. Our story and our DM team lacked a beating heart to drive it. For a clutch moment, it genuinely seemed as if the server was on the verge of dying out. And then, a miracle. Through all the noise and clutter, one managed to step up with a clear plan and vision and had the skill and finesse needed to actually get the team coordinated. Enter, Seamusking.
How does one begin to explain a personality like Seamusking? The only word that comes to mind is, maestro. Seamus is that rare individual blessed with charisma, emotional intelligence, as well as in-depth understanding of complex systems and mechanics. He’s the type of person who should never go into politics, simply because he’d be far too good at it.
With months of work, many quests and sessions, and a lot of roleplaying, Seamus began to pull the many disparate story threads that the DM’s had worked so hard to spin on their own and began to weave them into the epic tapestry that they deserved to be. In Tarster, there was lore about a shadow dragon which secretly controlled the city’s Lord and ruled it from the shadows. Seamus took that lore and turned the shadow dragon into the epic mid-boss of the campaign, single handedly hosting a massive raid of 19 players for the event, the first raid we had since the gnoll raid at the beginning of the server.
Then he took it a step further and gifted us with a proper BBEG in the form of Eltab, the demon prince of destruction who had caused the fall of the Arcadian Empire 30 years prior to the start of the campaign. As the pieces started coming together, the campaign grew steadily more epic in scale. Players revived the shadowy, broken husk of the last Emperor, who then went on to begin trying to reestablish his domain. They learned that Eltab’s true objective was the destruction of the gods, all the gods, which ironically made some characters want to join his side, as they still had grudges against the gods due to the aforementioned poor handling of deities in the early days. As the campaign built to its finale, storylines took adventurers all over the multiverse, across the Abyss, the Nine Hells, the Far Realms, the Underdark, and so much more than could ever be described in just this one post. We lived, we laughed, we cried, we suffered, fell, and got back up again stronger than before.
The final battle came on August 29, 2021. It was an epic raid of 18 players with Seamus as the DM. This was the third ever raid of this size on the server. Very fitting in a way. We started the true meat of the server with a massive hodge podge of a raid party, it was only right that we ended on the same high note. The battle was long and hard fought, the session itself taking roughly 12 hours from start to finish. The level range in our party varied wildly going from as low as 11 all the way to 20, with the majority of PC’s being on the higher end of the spectrum. The final boss was a colossal titan of a monster, over 300 feet high and weighing as much as the Empire State Building. It took everything we had to crack even the smallest dent in the bad guy’s armor, but eventually we broke through. We stayed alive, and we chipped away at him bit by bit until finally Eltab was no more. We survived by the skin of our teeth, many of us having been smashed and stomped on more then once, but we survived. The end result, complete and total victory to us, the adventurers of Tarster. And with that, Arcadia came to an end.
Two years. TWO YEARS. At some points, when the server was at its lowest points, the campaign felt like it was dragging on forever, but now, standing here on the other side of the finish line, it feels like it’s gone by in a flash. So much happened in those two years that I couldn’t possibly capture it all in this one article. One of our top DMs, discord username “N0pe”, perhaps put it best in his closing statements:
“So many people who started at our table left. Some were pushed out. Some walked away. Some just simply stopped talking. Some people had work to do and couldn’t play anymore. And some said ‘see you tomorrow,’ and never came back. And then at the end there were those of us still here, who made it to the very end. It’s a bittersweet feeling having to say [‘End of Session’]. It’s hard to wrap up any chapter of a book. It’s even harder to say ‘The End’. They say you can’t pick your family. Well I say, they’re wrong. Thank you. All of you. For being the best family [we] could have ever asked for.”
I’m making this post on October 19, 2021, exactly two years to the day when this story started. If this story gets picked up for a video by All Things DnD I’d be honored to have it told, even though I know this isn’t the traditional roleplay story-structure that All Things DnD tends to make videos about. If it’s not picked for narration, that’s fine as well. I just want to say thank you to All Things DnD, your influence and your platform has changed lives in more ways than you could possibly ever imagine.
Make no mistake, I skimmed over a lot of details in this post. And didn’t even scratch the surface of all the stories from this campaign. I will definitely be rectifying this in the posts to come; however, for now, I wanted to just focus on the story of the server of Arcadia itself. For a lot of us, this DnD campaign was more than just a game, it was a digital home. We all grew and changed so much because of our involvement with this campaign. People started relationships with each other because of this game. People worked through their depression and insecurity because of this game. Nothing I could ever write could really capture just how much this campaign — no, this community meant to many of us. That is why, despite all the problems, despite all the drama, and all the heartache, and despite not really knowing quite what Arcadia was, it was still the greatest westmarch of all time. It was grand, beautiful, messy clusterf*ck of a DnD campaign… and it was glorious. If you’ve made it this far in the reading and want to learn more, stay posted. Actual stories of the events that happened in game will be posted both to talesfromtarster.com, launching November 4, 2021, as well as on All Things DnD.
Our sequel server, Pandora’s Hope, begins on November 26, 2021, and applications for new players will be opening soon. Our DM team, armed now with 2 years of experience running an incredibly complex game with dozens of players, is more confident and battle tested in their skills than ever before. New players coming in will get the best possible version of what the Westmarch format has to offer.
I’m gonna close this posting with one last detail that I couldn’t really work-in anywhere else, and it makes sense here. In the general chat of our discord server, the opening tagline that incoming people first see when entering the server for the first time is “WELCOME TO THE CLUSTERF*CK.” Sort of a tongue and cheek reference to the fact that we’re self-aware of how messy and disorganized things are, but that we still manage to make it work anyway. It also refers to the fact that we are a very diverse group of people who come from different backgrounds all over the world. We had players from Europe, Canada, America, Asia, even Australia. We all have our own tastes and creative ideas for what DnD can be, we all have our own pet peeves and issues to work through, and we all stumble from time to time… and somehow, we manage to make it work, over and over again. We created a rich tapestry of a world with characters that had great depth, interesting quirks, and complex motivations, motivations that oftentimes were just straight up ludicrous and yet somehow we still made it work. If you’ve read this far and you’re not completely terrified — or worse actually excited — by the prospect of a community like this then I just have four words for you. “WELCOME TO THE CLUSTERF*CK.”