So now, we’ve got all the pieces in play: We’ve got well-rounded characters and well-rounded villains; we’ve got a series of goals for villains and players alike that intersect at all appropriate points while incorporating other PC’s; we’ve got these coming together in a story arc that melts seamlessly into a series of diverse adventures that take the party members from peons to legends; finally, along the way, we’ve made sure that the villain and his lieutenants will have survived long enough and been sufficiently nasty to warrant true and epic hatred. A few tips for laying out the path and coming to a close, and we’ll have built a game that can be truly called epic. It comes down to Storytelling (which is the subtle art of distributing information in a way that is pleasing to others, by my definition).
Perhaps one of the biggest temptations for myself in telling my epic campaign story was to tip my hand. Many of you may have players that seem to bull’s-eye your plot twists and turns before they’re even out of your mouth. Other players might require neon signs and a leaflet to figure out what’s going on in your campaign… in the end, I offer:
CAST A SHADOW
(but don’t be afraid of the dark)
This is what your 9th grade English teacher was talking about when she was talking about foreshadowing. Leaving appropriate hints as to what’s going on is necessary for your player’s enjoyment of the game. While you don’t want to spoil any major plot twists, you’ll find that a sudden about-face or surprise ending is only effective if it is consistent with character (per Part 2 and Part 3 of these articles) and something that the players at least had a chance of guessing at.
No one reads a mystery novel that doesn’t at least give some clues as to who done it, even if those are all red herrings. Trickling these out over time allows the characters to feel like they’re making progress, and that the story is evolving around them. Dump too much info on them at once (often at the end) and you may find they don’t understand or even care what you’re trying to tell them about.
You may be blessed with players who are so invested in your story as to predict any plot twist you throw at them. Planting minor seeds that may seem meaningless at the time due to their context will allow you as a GM to gloat a bit, but also act as a reference point to your players that your clever conclusion was long time in the coming. In the end, I say “Don’t be afraid of the dark,” because sometimes with clever players or a very simple plot, you may need to throw in a few red herrings or limit a little more information to keep the mystery alive. Players are good at blurting out suspicions, but if you can keep your poker face, they’ll doubt themselves enough to remain in suspense. Make ample use of the phrases like “Interesting theory” “You think so?” and “Uh… what are you talking about?”
Shake your head and smirk. They hate that.
I’ll admit, that sometimes your players will think up ideas that will blow you away. Their story is so much better than yours, and is so much more compelling you wish you had thought of it. My advice is steal it and claim it as your own. They’ll feel so great about figuring it all out, they’ll never notice your frantic scribbling. Careful though, if you’ve built your game properly, there may be too much reconciliation to achieve to maintain logical consistency. Steal plots with extreme caution.
WHEN YOU GET TO THE END, STOP.
When that well nurtured final villain falls at the hand of the heroes, describe their death throes and the general awesomeness of the characters, perhaps throw in an epilogue, and then stop. Copy or print final versions of all the characters, put them in a binder with your notes, and put it on the shelf. The following week, play a board game or try a different system, and let the story rest. Then, if your players just won’t leave you alone, ponder at your leisure whether a mini-arc would be justified to take the characters out of retirement. Such a mini-arc would have all the principles above, but would consist of a short and sweet adventure with new separate closure. While not an epic victory, it does keep goals set for both player and GM, and gives you a definite end point to shelve the campaign again. Come back as often as you need to, but maintain closure as a goal and a satisfying victory as a reward for a game well played.
These tips are far from rocket surgery, but represent lessons I’ve learned from games I ran when I was a kid to games I run now. More than anything, however, remember that while sometimes an ending can mean saying goodbye to a loved character or dynamic, a story without an ending isn’t much of a story, and there is always that next story just waiting to be told, right around the corner.
I hope you enjoyed our series on the elements of building a truly epic campaign. We’ll put this one on the shelf for now, but we may bring it out of retirement if need be. Here are the links to the previous installments:
So yesterday we talked about building history with characters to establish a series of memorable encounters with the antagonists that would fundamentally create a story line. We further talked about how creating goals for heroes and villains helped to guide the characters and the storyteller with the things they’ve brought to life. This all pushes us closer to the goal of the epic campaign story. But how do we take those villains off the page and make them truly memorable.
I have a bit of a knack for creating real bastards as antagonists. However, the primary villain in the scenario I’ve run are seldom as loathed as the lieutenants and foot-soldiers of the primary antagonist. And there is nothing more satisfying than to watch your players express genuine rage at a character that might have just been a simple encounter at one point but has grown to something more… in some cases, much more.
In Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords series, the party that I mentioned Tuesday encountered Gogmurt, the goblin druid. After a brief combat, Gogmurt made a bargain with the party to assist them if they would let him go, and almost immediately betrayed them, leading them into an ambush and flying away in the form of a bird. Did the party let it go? Of course not. Every spare moment between adventures, they were searching for Gogmurt. Seeing this excitement over him, Gogmurt proceeded to use his druidic powers to evade capture (which, as it turns out, are amazing for such a purpose).
I knew I had succeeded in creating a true villain for the party when one member of the group said, “I’m not sure how this world saving thing will turn out, but I’m going to kill Gogmurt before this is all over.” He had surpassed the primary villain in terms of enmity. But here’s why… it’s an application of Rule #3
NURTURE YOUR VILLAINS
A good villain has some complexity to them. Few vie for world domination and can actually back up that play, so I feel like it’s important to take the goals we established for our villains previously, and get inside the mind of your antagonist to build what their response to their own wants and needs are. Then, throw in a dash of menace, cunning, or just plain evil, and you have a great start for an epic villain. Normally, once these goals are applied, a heartless twist is all it takes to push the villain from a faceless minion to an enemy of epic proportions.
Want to get their attention fast? Have your underling kill the party’s horses, murder a few innocents, poison a well, or spit in their porridge. You’ll be surprised how personally they take it, especially after he gets away a few times. Taking down one of these sorts of villains can make a great benchmark or mini-goal and sate the players’ appetite for destruction before the endgame. Just remember to make whatever actions the villain takes very personal to the PC’s. Not just trying to kill them (anyone can do that)… we want a villain that is trying to get under their skin.
In all this, something I like to do is to keep in mind that most people don’t believe themselves to be evil. Gogmurt presented himself in the end of our campaign to be a creature defending his home and its clan, and after being killed, the party’s executioner showed some remorse . Shades of grey make for good roleplaying opportunities as creatures and classes of various backgrounds try to reconcile their broad conceptions of morality.
But perhaps, more importantly, these villains get to tell their story, and we start to see the adventure more like a movie than a game. We have a glimpse of the cut scenes that reveal the villain’s motivation, and more than a game gets played, a story is told.
Next week, The Journey – Getting from epic construction to epic delivery
As gamers, the start of a new campaign, regardless of system, always holds so much promise, and as GMs, we often plan an adventure or two ahead, with maybe some vague notions for the long term. A good game is often continued at the behest of the players even after the first story arc is complete, and in my experience, campaigns tend to peter out more than closing in an epic finale. I think it’s a misstep to approach it that way, and I have some thoughts about campaign planning that might address how to avoid anticlimax. This week, we’re going to talk about Epic Beginnings, Endings, and getting from one to the other.
This issue is on my mind because a few weeks ago, we finished Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, which we started playing on a weekly basis in early 2008 with both novice and experienced players. We started with PFRPG’s Alpha playtest rules and ended with the finalized version of the PFRPG. While we took some time off here and there for different side-games, we played pretty regularly for the past few years, and went through 6 modules in that series, taking the heroes from 1st level goblin killers to 15th level giant-slaying saviors of the free world.
For about half of our players, it was the first time they had a character over 10th level, and certainly the first time they had played a character from 1st straight through to 15th. I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand the number of characters I’ve played straight from 1st to 15th or higher, and for many of our group, it may be the closest they get for a while.
But more than that, as we shelve the campaign with no immediate plans to pick up and run with these characters again, it’s a rare moment of closure in an epic story arc. So, how do we get to this Epic Finale? Well, turns out it starts at the beginning.
Beginnings, as it turns out, are easy. We have different expectations in what makes a good beginning, but the origin story allows us to build without a sense of continuity or history, and there is nowhere to go but up. Usually at lower levels, game balance and play speed are less of a factor than with higher level play. As you move towards higher level play, combats can grow in both complexity and duration, and both players and characters can wind up overburdened.
A little planning goes a long way to developing a memorable conclusion to your epic adventure arc, and keep things from stopping short or going beyond the natural life span of the game. So, our first tip is:
BUILD YOUR ARC (Noah’s Rule)
Okay, so maybe Noah built a different type of ‘Arc’ but the principal remains key: Every epic campaign should have a beginning, middle and end planned from the outset. A little structure goes a long way in keeping character motivations logical and consistent. Some folks prefer things to flow more organically, but even a very loose framework with established goals for both GM’s and players will gently urge both towards an epic conclusion and not a meandering whimper.
I’ve played and run in plenty of games where the course of the campaign was mostly influenced by whatever the GM picked up at his FLGS that weekend. That can still work, as long as you’re careful to integrate personalized connections with the module/scenario, and work in Arc related content in between non sequitur adventures.
With a solid yet adaptable framework in place, you have a pole star to guide your ship by, allowing you to step into the shoes of that villain when your players inevitably trash his well laid plans. Keeping a logically consistent and flowing story arc will tell a better tale for your players and make your experience truly epic.
Tomorrow, we’ll dig deeper into that idea. We’d like to hear your thoughts/tips/ideas about what makes a good start for a campaign, and how you build it to last.
Rule of Three took their regular three questions mined from various sources, but this week the questions were about DnDnext. One of the stated goals of the next edition is to create a common core DnD that has all the main ingredients that make DnD what it is, what it was, and what it shall be:
“One of the primary goals of the game will be to take the best elements from all editions and find ways to unify them around a tight, central core of a game aimed at providing the essential aspects of Dungeons & Dragons.”
So what unifies all the editions? As you look at character sheets of all the different editions, what would feel weird if it were missing? Here are a few things that I feel have to be included to the base core for it to feel like Dungeons and Dragons. Everything else is negotiable.
1. The six stats. DnD would not be DnD without Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Mess with the holy six, and thou shall incur such nerd rage the servers shall run red with developers blood tears. Well, maybe not, but to me nothing is more integral to the DnD experience than our old familiar stats; preferably with values 3-18.
2. Armor Class. All other defenses are negotiable. Do you roll a save, or does an enemy target your Will defense? Doesn’t matter. But without AC, you aren’t playing DnD.
3. Hit Points. These terms transcend edition. If you go to anyone who has played any version of DnD, and pretty much any RPG video game, they’ll know what hit points are. Don’t go getting creative with this one, guys.
4. Class. I may not be in the majority here, but I don’t mind the super-old-school notion of race-classes like the classic dwarves, elves, and halflings. That being said, you can’t have DnD without classes. Races are optional to me, but will likely cause a nerd-uproar with the majority of DnD players. I feel like the core classes will and should be the old standbys: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Wizard. I feel like Ranger is pretty iconic too, but not absolutely core.
Now that I look at this list, it may just be a big ad for Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG. It has all of these elements, and once it comes out, will probably be what I’m playing while we wait for 5e. If you haven’t downloaded the beta, do yourself a favor and get it here. It will certainly give you something to think about while us commoners wait to be invited to the 5e beta.
Yesterday WotC announced they would reprint a limited run of 1e AD&D core rulebooks, available only at FLGS, with proceeds benefitting the Gary Gygax Memorial Fund. Reactions were mixed, but mostly positive. I think this is definitely a step in the right direction for Wizards, and a bit of an olive branch to the RPG community as a whole.
I’m sure all the true Grognards have their original copies on a lofty shelf full of other dusty tomes from the 70s and 80s, but I think it’s a great way to begin the 5e era of looking at the roots of the game, and making them available again; all while honoring the creator of an entire genre of entertainment.
Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend to open the TSR vaults, and make a lot of old gaming material available again. While this isn’t downloadable PDFs of classic adventures, or relaunching Dragon and Dungeon magazines in both Print and PDF form as real magazines again, it is a nod to the older audience, that remember the good old days of tabletop RPGs.
The books are not priced for casual gamers looking to try RPGs for the first time. At $45 for the DMG, $35 for the PHB, and $35 for the MM, these are priced for the nostalgic RPG dad, remembering dungeons from long ago, who wants to find his dice bag and roll again! I’m going to try my best to get my hands on copies for myself, if for no other reason than to vote with my dollars and tell Wizards they are on the right track!
Recently I’ve been reading the articles about the state of DnD and RPGs in general. In my own little RPG-filled bubble it seemed to me that RPGs were doing just fine. While having a niche audience, they seemed healthy enough. Even in our little town of Asheville, NC we have three Friendly Local Gaming Stores. Or I should say had.
The articles about the contraction of the hobby really hit home when I read yesterday that Blitzkrieg games would be closing for the winter. They played host to our fledgling Pathfinder Lodge, and had one of the most pleasant gaming retail spaces I had ever seen. Their facebook post indicates they’re just closing for the winter, but who knows what that really means. If they couldn’t afford to stay open, how could they afford to pay rent in downtown Asheville? I hope for the best, but am prepared for the worst.
In the meantime, I’ve convinced a lot of the other Skyland guys to give this Pathfinder Society thing a try before we head down to SCARAB, and now we’re looking for a venue. Hopefully one of the other shops will step up to the plate, but judging by their schedules they may not have room for us. Saturday is filled with Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Warhammer 40k, etc.
This also made me think of the average age of RPG players. I’m about to turn 31 in two weeks, and I’ve been on the young end of the spectrum at many gaming tables. I’m the youngest guy at Skyland Games.
Does this represent a microcosm of the gaming industry as a whole? Fragmented, aging and contracting? What can we do about it? I think the best thing we can do is spread the love of tabletop RPGs to the next generation. A lot of kids who grew up in the 80s heyday of D&D and RPGs in general are now having kids. When mom and dad have a bunch of weird looking dice, and a shelf full of monsters and creatures of all types that can have a big influence on their kids and that kid’s friends.
MMORPGs, incredible console games, flash games, and casual games provide more distractions than ever. Its important to remember that its not a binary choice. Just because you play one type of game doesn’t mean you will never try anything else. Many people who play pencil and paper RPGs have played world of warcraft or skyrim because we love the genre. The most important thing we can do is make sure that option is available to the next generation and keep inspiring imaginations. Host an event at the library, start a blog, or show a kid what a d20 looks like. The future of RPGs is up to us.
We’ve been having so much fun with iCrit and iFumble, we were talking last session about fumble results for 4e skills. I suppose you could have a critical success, and in fact, my epic 4e Thief gained two successes in a skill challenge when I rolled a 20 on one, but really fumbles are more fun. At least for the GM.
Now before I raise the ire of all hardcore 4e players out there, I know that according to the Rules As Written, in a skill check a 1 is not necessarily a failure and a 20 is not a guaranteed success (though usually they qualify as failures or successes if the challenge is even moderately level appropriate), but put your books away. This is house rule time. As a bonus its presented in a massive table. What is D&D without house rules and massive tables?
A few of the obvious skills have failure conditions written in the rules already. Fail an acrobatics/athletics climb check, you fall. But what if you fell really awkwardly, or what if you fell on your head? What about massive failures at diplomacy or intimidate? I present the Skyland Games 4e Skill Fumble Table. Not only does it address consequences for failure, it has degrees of failure based on how far away from the DC the skill check landed.
It also addresses the somewhat irritating mechanic (to me anyway) that a ranger can fail a nature check, and due to the luck of the dice, a paladin could pass it. This will make someone think twice about using a skill they have no business attempting. It could certainly heighten the tension at the table during a skill challenge. There are few truly tense skill challenges I can remember from the many 4e adventures I’ve been on.
Check it out, and let us know what you think if you end up using it: SkillFumble1
– Edit: An astute reader pointed out I am terrible at mathematical symbols. This I freely admit. Updated the PDF to remove obfuscation. –
Last night the pirates campaign got under way again, with my 4e conversion of B4 – The Lost City. I did my best to keep the spirit of the original, but since our party is made up of pirates at sea, the top of the temple was just above the water, rather than above the dunes. Unlike a lot of the more recent 4e mods in the Scales of War adventure path and certainly the Living Forgotten Realms mods, this was a much more traditional dungeon crawl. Originally published in 1982, the majority of adventures at that time were crawls.
It was refreshing for me, after playing a lot 4e over the past few years, to recapture some of the old school feel. Some might think that it would be difficult to challenge the party given the mechanics of healing surges and the relative power of 2nd level 4e character as compared to the power of a 2nd level 1e character. I countered this in a few ways.
First off, all the monsters they faced had 4e stat blocks. Several of them had already been restated and were waiting for me in the compendium, or monster vault. Others I needed to find a suitable substitute, but even that wasn’t tough. For instance, in one room the party encounters an enormous beehive with foot-long bees. While there aren’t any 4e giant bee stats, there are giant ant stats. Change their climb speed to a fly speed, stat-up an encounter-power sting, and viola: 4e Giant Bee.
The second way I compensated for 4e mechanics was to limit the short rests they could take. The basis for this adventure is that they are almost out of supplies and need to find food and fresh water to replenish the ships stores. I gave them a little food and one waterskin between them, that I told them would be good for two short rests until they could find more food and water. While most of the encounters were just a few creatures, each battle drained there precious resources, and made them actively look for ways to get food and water, which led to some awesome role-play opportunities. (Player: Can we eat bees? Me: You can try.)
A third aspect that was really fun to see again was the party checking pretty much any door they came across for traps. The mod did a great job of setting this up by leaving scattered bodies of previous explorers who had set off traps ahead of the party. Also, the first room they encountered one of the party fell through the floor to a chamber with several fire beetles. While the rest of the party descended to assist their comrade, the wizard sat back and hurled a spell or two whenever it was advantageous, only going in to the room after freezing the last beetle to a wall with a ray of frost.
Playing an old school mod also got the players in an old school frame of mind. Early on, one of the characters gathered up some old, sludgy oil that could be used as smoky flasks of oil. When the party encountered the giant bees, he had the brilliant idea of using the smoke from the burning oil to make the bees docile. When is the last time a 4e character in your game, scrounged up some material and used it to avoid a fight? Brilliant.
The pirates have managed to scrape together a little water, and they took the time to cook and send back some giant lizard they had freshly slain. To keep the crew fed, they’ll have to journey deeper into the underwater structure. The party found a stairway down, but wisely chose to explore the rest of the floor they were on before charging off into the unknown. It was a great session and I’m really looking forward to next week!
Skyland Games submitted an entry to the most recent WotC Expert DM Competition with the appropriate theme of ‘Create a Holiday.’ Steve, who you may remember for his 4e Christmas Carol, came up with Gnollhunt. He did an awesome job detailing all the particulars for the holiday and provided some awesome hooks for incorporating it into your next adventure in Faerun, or where ever your party ventures.
Unfortunately the deadline for submissions was Dec. 23rd, but you can check out past competitions and participate in future ones on the WotC Community Expert Dungeon Master Competition Group (XDMC). You’ll find a host of resources for both novice and expert DMs on their community page. Check out the archive for a quick run down of previous competitions.
On another note, the Skyland Games crew is ready to set sail on the 2nd chapter of their pirate adventures. We’ve had to postpone it a number of weeks due to extenuating circumstances, but tonight, we sail! I will be DMing my recent 4e conversion of B4 – The Lost City. Rather than being under the dunes, this forgotten temple is underwater. I tried to maintain as many of the original elements of the old adventure, and for the most part, found it pretty easy. It may not be so easy on the PCs. We’ll see after tonight.