Bill Heron: Gaming in Edinburgh and other RPG stuff


Epic plot, epic campaigns

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.

Joining the Dark Side

The shadows just got a little darker. Evan “Diamondback” Hogan is a Shadowrunner in the Bangkok of the future. He’s what they call a Street Samurai in the Shadowrun RPG, a cyborg that makes their living as hired muscle and enforcers for Shadowruns. They usually have a lot of cool upgrades, such as cybernetic limbs, smartguns and other techno-wizardry. Evan is not a nice person; he is cold-blooded, experienced and thoroughly without remorse or much of a conscience. He’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. And he’s my new Shadowrun PC.

And that’s what this article is about – being the Bad Guy in an RPG. From the outset, I’m not extolling the virtues of a life of crime or violence. Let’s be clear on that.

For years, alignment has been a  tool in games such as D&D. More often than not, it is also used a blunt instrument. Unfortunately for some GMs, there’s also a high incidence of munchkin players who think being evil means killing everything, including other party members. In 4th edition D&D the alignments concepts are largely revamped from earlier editions, making them less of a strait-jacket.

It’s very difficult to apply alignments to populations or countries: a cruel and unforgiving nature god may still be worshipped by good communities for example. A lawful good society may have oppressive rules and regulations, along with a harsh regime for crime and punishment.

Here’s some suggestions for evil characters, be they PCs or NPCs.

It pays better

Sometimes people are in it for the money: they’re paid hirelings, or otherwise employed in the service of evil. They look upon it as a source of income, be they a hitman or spy. They can turn good for a price, and are likely to swayed by cash incentives – they are more likely to be mercenaries than zealots.

These characters often treat others as assets or obstacles. They may kill out of hand, but to them it is just a business, and rarely let their emotions colour their perceptions to this  extent.

Evil has the best tailors

Sometimes, evil is just fashionable. Maybe its the uniform, or the fact that everyone else is doing it. Maybe the character’s friends have all joined a cult, one that proves popular. They may have been brainwashed or willingly complicit, and may or may not be aware of their actions. They may not be morally bankrupt, but they’re quite willing to further their own ends.

Some characters with this aspect may be living their lives in fear of discovery – others may openly flout the fact that they’re evil. Everybody loves a villain.

Society’s fault

“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way” – Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

As we know, sometimes society has its underdogs. It may be a vocation, caste, or class, or even a community – but for some reason these underdogs are despised, or persecuted. Naturally, this makes them want to hit back – and the underdogs may see themselves as justified in their actions – they are only defending themselves after all. Half-orcs, for example, are often the subject of race hatred by both humans and Orcs; but they are quite capable of hitting back!

These characters may see themselves as freedom fighters or liberators, or blame a corrupt or unfair society – they may be pacifists, demagogues, or ruthless terrorists.

Whatever it takes

Sometimes the end justifies the means. These characters are convinced that no matter what happens they serve a greater good. The Imperial Inquisition of wh40k (Warhammer 40,000) is a very good example of this: they wipe out whole worlds to prevent them falling into enemy hands (such as the Tyranids or forces of Chaos), and ruthlessly hunt down psykers (beings with psychic powers) – those they catch are then turned into Astropaths, recruited, or drained of their life energy to fuel the Astronomican. However, if they did not do this the Imperium would have fallen to Chaos and all warp travel would cease.

Twisted by technology

“He’s more machine than man now, twisted and evil.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Empire Strikes Back

In Shadowrun , the more body parts your replace the larger the Essence cost. Magic users need high Essence scores to use magic. With more machine parts it seems likely that some of your humanity would be lost, including the ability to feel emotions or to relate to other beings. Maybe the character is/was a brain in a jar and something got lost in the transition, or the technology amplifies certain emotion like hunger or hate.

Note that by technology we don’t just mean cyborg enhancements: magic weapons (such as Stormbringer), or even the atomic bomb can make people act in ways contrary to their nature, or intensify certain elements (like the Go’auld sarcophagus in Stargate). Certain characters may welcome their changes; others may regret it every single day.

Power corrupts

“You don’t know the power of the Dark Side.” – Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi.

Sometimes, the path to evil is taken in tiny steps. You turn a blind eye here, justify a decision there. When the character is in  a position of responsibility, there may be that temptation to use that power to serve themselves, or enforce their will upon others. After a time, it may become second nature to use their power, never quite noticing the stains on their character.

For instance: the planetary governor who chooses to allow a Chaos cult to flourish in return for an extended lifespan in wh40k? The D&D liche whose quest is to triumph over death? The monster hunter who becomes a worse monster than those he hunts?

Because it is FUN!

“Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  – Alfred Pennyworth, The Dark Knight

Chaotics or anarchists, this is the sort of character that fills most GMs with worry when a player says they want to play an evil PC 🙂 – they do everything at a whim or follow some grand scheme of their own making. They may be completely unaware that their actions have consequences or know exactly what they are doing. Either way, they are unpredictable and may have their own twisted code of honour, morals or quirk (Batman villains, I’m looking at you!).

This type of character is far more difficult to play in a structured game, and may quickly wear out the patience of GMs and players. Unfortunately many new players tend to drift into this chaotic-evil PC archetype as it gives them a chance to kill other PCs and then justify it: games were PCs are killing other PCs quickly lose their attraction for players and GMs. If you want to do that, go play Mortal Kombat or WoW.

Doing the right thing

For whatever reason, the character believes that they are doing the right thing – they may be under a some form of compulsion, have been deceived, or simply believe that they are right. Unfortunately at some point they lost their way: their cause became all-consuming.

For instance, in the wh40k universe, the Primarch of the Thousand Sons Chapter, Magnus the Red, believes his sorcery has expunged the genetic taint from his Space Marine Chapter. Although warned against using sorcery by the Emperor himself, Magnus becomes aware of the imminent treachery of Horus and the Horus Heresy. While attempting to warn the Emperor, Magnus accidentally destroys the Webway that the Imperium would use to take the fight to the Eldar. The Emperor fails to heed the warning of Magnus, but the Primarch’s use of sorcery and the Warp leads to the destruction of Prospero and the fall of the Thousand Sons.