Epic campaigns are tricky to run at the best of times. I think its safe to say that most RPGs are character-driven or location focused. When I say “character driven”, I’m talking about systems like FATE where PCs can pretty much do anything with their character in return for some kind of trade off or disadvantage. It’s not an easy concept for those new to RPGs, or even those who have been playing for years. I found the Aspects of the Dresden Files RPG confusing for quite some time and still aren’t totally clear on them. It also encourages players to create a decent back story. On the one hand it very easy to create an epic plot, but difficult to create an adventure beyond a basic framework, as the PCs can go off on huge tangents from the plot. It can also lead to accusations of favoritism (sometimes quite rightly) on the GM’s part if players aren’t given their own chance to shine.

Location focused is more old school D&D. A dungeon or city is the focus of the campaign, and in itself applies restrictions to what a group can do. The characters are still important but much of their development is the result of a background created earlier, or expanded upon during session downtime. This is the easiest for a GM to run as most players can relate to it from computer games, or personal experience.

I’m planning to go back to running some old AD&D soon at ORC, which includes some higher level games – I also got in on the Rise of eh Drow Pathfinder series too -so I’ve been thinking a bit about things. Whether your game is character-driven or location focused, when the players become seriously powerful then the entire game changes. In D&D, it’s called Epic or Paragon tier – that’s a good enough name for it. It’s when your PCs can go toe to toe (hoof?) with Orcus, Vecna, or the other Bigger Bads. Wizards can warp reality, and fighters can cut through hordes like butter.

So when it comes to epic campaigns, sometimes it helps to do some of the following.

Challenge Rating

Dr. Evil: You know, I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads! Now evidently my cycloptic colleague informs me that that cannot be done. Ah, would you remind me what I pay you people for, honestly? Throw me a bone here! What do we have?
Number Two: Sea Bass.
Dr. Evil: [pause] Right.
Number Two: They’re mutated sea bass.
Dr. Evil: Are they ill tempered?
Number Two: Absolutely.
Dr. Evil: Oh well, that’s a start

– Austin Powers

Ditch it. I’ve mentioned it before but I really hate Challenge Rating (CR). It should be used by GMs as a tool, not a crutch or other impediment. It doesn’t balance the game – especially when they started assigning CR to traps! PCs should know that running away is definitely an option; sometimes the monsters win! This outcome doesn’t always factor into player thinking as a result of CR, and the “fight or flee” option is definitely one to bear in mind for Epic Campaigns.

The Astartes Effect

“They shall be my finest warriors, these men who give of themselves to me. Like clay I shall mould them, and in the furnace of war forge them. They will be of iron will and steely muscle. In great armour shall I clad them and with the mightiest guns will they be armed. They will be untouched by plague or disease, no sickness will blight them. They will have tactics, strategies and machines so that no foe can best them in battle. They are my bulwark against the Terror. They are the Defenders of Humanity. They are my Space Marines and they shall know no fear.”  – The Emperor, the Horus Heresy Bk.1: Betrayal.

Adeptus Astartes, or Space Marines, in the wh40k universe are the genetically-engineered warrior elites of Humanity. They are so powerful that they can gun down or cut through dozens of opponents faster than their human counterparts. I call this the Astartes effect: when a small group of hugely powerful characters are under attack from a numerically superior force; a horde in effect (its as good a name as any). In the Deathwatch RPG (and Black Crusade), there are rules allowing for hordes and for Astartes facing off against them. It helps prevent the game being bogged down with individual damage rolls. In games like D&D, try using narrative combat – unless the PCs are in danger of being overborne or swarmed under. Narrative combat means that players and GMs don’t have to keep account of every single Kobold they hit, but still get a feel for the battle. They’re killing a number of opponents when they hit not one per attack.

Epic battles

 “…. like giants in the playground ….” John Sheridan, Babylon 5

Any Epic Campaign should have epic battles. If your PCs can plan and lead the battle even better – but remember to keep it simple initially. Keep in mind that your players perspective is that of their PCs – make them the focus, than the battle as a whole. Don’t have NPCs rushing up and saving the PCs every 5 minutes, and try and make it clear that is pure chaos on the battlefield – whether a fantasy world or the void of space. Watch movies like 300, Zulu, or the various LotR, to see how movie directors deal with this sort of thing – they focus on the characters. Don’t fall into the trap of describing the whole battle: let the PCs think they are pivotal to events.

Epic moments

“NOOOOOOO!” – Luke Skywalker, The Empire Strikes Back AND Return of the Jedi

Epic moments or “White vest moments” are those moments in films that usually have a stirring tune or strong motif. Luke giving in to his anger (Return of the Jedi), John Mclane leaping off the roof in Die Hard (which is why I call them white vest moments). Any time the character has been beaten down, to his last healing surge, and has one last witty rejoinder to say. That’s a white vest moment. The bad guys can have them too, but that’s a bit of an action movie cliche these days. If the PC is dying then let them have them one final moment to pull the trigger, disarm the bomb, hold back the enemy etc.

Plotting blocks of stories

I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write. – J. K. Rowling

If you’re planning an epic campaign, make sure it can go the distance. If you’re starting your PCs off at a low level, then its worth taking a leaf out of Babylon 5‘s book and create a long-term story arc or meta plot. Maybe the setting has some meta plot already. Perhaps the villains from the beginning of the campaign gain new powers or advances as the players do, there’s clues to major event that will happen. Or the PCs are in the wrong place at the right time (maybe not right for the PCs!). Also get some ideas from your PC backgrounds and weave them in.  Perhaps the best way to do this is write down your ideas and see how they could be made to work together, rearranging them as needed. Just remember, more a few long-term plot lines (3-5 is safe) and it all goes Wheel of Time. ARGH.

Avoid Monster of the Week

If you don’t plan your campaign you’ll likely find yourself stumped trying to find new opponents to challenge your PCs. usually this manifests as Monster of the Week, when a GM throws powerful monsters at a PC party to fill the time. There are plenty of ways to keep your PCs busy: Politics; planar travel; building their castle! In sufficient numbers, even low-level monsters are dangerous to PCs – or their sidekicks. The PCs are the top of the heap at this point, but there will be others out there who will be the “Next Generation” and might be looking to get ahead.

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” – Inigo Montoya, the Princess Bride

Other adventurers are always good opponents! Not to mention enemies looking to get even – tribal vendettas, demonic vengeance, and undead retribution can all be used to rain down some payback for the PCs earlier actions. When you’re feeling really evil, one of the PCs becomes an evil NPC. That’s tricky to do as you’re pretty much killing off someone’s PC (whether they are still playing or not).

Imminent Peril

“No sleep till Brooklyn!” – Beastie Boys, No sleep till Brooklyn

Players love their PCs to have magic items, equipment, feats, and powers. They scream blue murder when you take them away – especially if an NPC uses a spell like Mordenkainen’s Disjunction upon them (a spell that strips items of their magic PERMANENTLY). That’s a bit extreme but there’s a strong reliance on these to balance the game at higher levels, providing buffs to the character’s stats. Feats and Powers are nearly staggering in their complexity and variety at higher levels in epic campaigns. Unfortunately this can slow things down immensely (D&D 4e can be very slow sometimes), but when you’re running a epic campaign there’s one thing you can do: use imminent peril.

Imminent peril can be anything from the PCs being hunted, a constant running battle, or being unable to sleep or recharge their powers. An encounter that continues with reinforcements flooding in means that you’ll likely have your players getting worried as their Healing Surges creep down, their powers are used up, and their ammunition depleted… At some point one of the PCs will fall, possibly fatally and at that point you can give the PCs their way out if they committed themselves to hanging around! Sometimes, surrender or fleeing is the only option.

Location-focused games can add another facet: the environment. Places like D&Ds Ravenloft or the Abyss have a lot of magic-resistant creatures who also use magic items themselves. In the Dark Sun setting, the world itself can kill the PCs through dehydration or exposure.

Epic Campaigns & Failure

“A very small man can cast a very large shadow.” – Varys – Game of Thrones

Sometimes things go wrong for the PCs. This should be a fact of life at high level campaigns: the actions of one individual can sometimes have a huge affect. Londo Mollari (Babylon 5) stops caring. As a result the galaxy is plunged further into war by his actions. What about Isildur choosing to keep the Ring of Power in Lord of the Rings? In the latter example, that’s a very good illustration of what can happen when things go wrong for PCs in a epic campaign. A simple choice to keep the Ring after the Dark Lord had fallen, like the PCs looting the fallen 🙂  – what if they fail to destroy (or decide to keep) a cursed item like the Hand or Eye of Vecna?

Would Elrond have attempted to kill Isildur for the ring to destroy it? He was a “party member”, and we know Boromir and Galadriel were tempted by the ring too – it’s not uncommon that former NPCs, allies or even PCs may turn on their former comrades (in fact that’s common practice in games like PARANOIA or BLACK CRUSADE.

Of course the most spectacular fall from grace is reserved for those who hold themselves to the highest moral standards: Paladins and Jedi, I’m looking at you. For them to fall from grace really is the stuff of epic campaigns. Whether its for love, revenge,  or the fact that they doubt themselves: their fall and possible salvation really can be rewarding to run.

Hail to the King

“A new power has arisen” – Saruman, Lord of the Rings.

Even if your PCs have got lands and titles they still need to hold onto them. Politics can be subtle intrigues, a knife in the dark, or it could brutal civil war if the lands and titles were held by someone who does not look kindly upon the PCs. The Nobility may regard them with contempt or fear and the PCs will find themselves involved in some form of politics. It’s not unlikely that a PC could end up as royalty or even married. As we know from Game of Thrones, wedding feasts are great fun for plots! It also possible that the PCs become the new tools of oppression, setting up another Dark Lord (possibly even one of them). All the time spent fighting the establishment and they have become the establishment.

Death is not the end

Despite the reluctance of many GMs to kill off higher level characters, there’s a possibility that the PCs may reach some form of apotheosis or ascension in an epic campaign. They may even become some form of demi-god  or aspire to be one – consider liches or even Raistlin Majere in DRAGONLANCE, or the Ancients in STARGATE SG-1. The journey to the point of apotheosis should be full of trials, and should not come easily. It’s also possible that a party can go walking the Planes, Kung-fu style on their own Long Walk. Planar journeys can be a lot of fun for epic campaigns!

So there’s my thoughts on epic campaigns. I hope you’ve found them useful or thought-provoking at least.

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at http://orcedinburgh.co.uk and regularly play RPGs.

One reply on “Epic plot, epic campaigns”

Comments are closed.