A couple of things to note for you Pathfinder fans out there. Voting begins tonight for RPG Superstar! Sadly our submissions didn’t make the round of 32, but there are some really interesting items that did. Vote for your favorite designer and follow the brackets to see who comes out on top this year! Voting begins at 5pm EST.
In other Paizo news, the Guide to Pathfinder Society Organized play has been updated to version 4.1. There are a few major changes and a few minor ones. Most notably, playing a pre-gen character of any level gets you the chronicle sheet for that scenario that can be applied to a newly created 1st level character. At first read it would appear that you could “power-level” a character by applying an upper-level chronicle sheet to a lower level character, but I’m sure they’ll work out the kinks.
Another major change is the addition of an entire chapter devoted to sanctioned modules. Apparently you can play a regular non-society Pathfinder module and get society credit. Chronicle sheets have been added for the 15 modules that are currently sanctioned. Furthermore, a retired 12-level character can level up beyond 12th by playing through the sanctioned modules.
The local lodge here in Asheville is really picking up steam! We’re still trying out several venues to find a more permanent home in light of Blitzkrieg closing, but despite that there are new faces each event, and proving to be the best organized play experience many of us have ever experienced. If you haven’t found a lodge near you, why not start one on the message boards and get something started? Our lodge is only a few months old, and players are coming out from all over. Meet your fellow gamers and help grow the hobby!
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
Yesterday we discussed how to get started off on the right foot with your campaign to arrive at an epic campaign. In particular, we went over the importance of building a skeletal framework for your story goals, getting to the epic finale.
Today we’re going to put a little flesh on that skeleton by giving another bullet point:
ESTABLISH JUSTIFIABLE GOALS
(or those without history are doomed to repeat themselves)
After you’ve constructed your loose framework, a GM needs to determine what the goals of his villains are going to be. Is your villain bent on revenge? Maybe world domination? If so, it’s important to start smaller, like controlling the highways through bands of thugs that generate revenue for the villain and his armies. A GM setting out the right goals for his villain may very well find the plot of their story writing itself. This is all part of building a history for your antagonists, which will help to guide their actions and master plan, affecting the lives of the characters as a result.
These are good points to keep recorded and fall back on when plots get complicated or motivations muddled. They may change depending on what the characters do, but looking back to these principal goals will keep the Villain’s actions logical, which becomes very important when you try to throw a plot twist in here or there.
Additionally, I’ve found it helpful as a GM to sit down with players to establish character goals. This helps to figure out what they want to get out of the game as a player and as a character, and can help you to find a way to let them tell their story. Even if minimal, every character should have some sort of story to tell when building the epic campaign. Epic campaigns take time to play, and no one wants to play with a two dimensional cardboard cutout of a fighter, even if they’re used to it. Characters without backstory might have a few shining moments that define them, but are likely to be similiar to every other character of the same race and class. This is especially so in some editions that don’t allow the rules to signficantly differentiate the character from another of the same type.
Building your campaign to address player goals (sometimes by creating character specific problems that the entire party can then help solve) creates situations where each player can shine. In my current campaign, the story was built around resolving different dilemmas that were specific to each character. The problems were global and personal, so the entire party could participate, but one or two characters got their chance to shine at some step along the way. The players appreciated the attention, and grew their characters all the more for the appreciation of their part of the story. Just remember to give everyone equal time in the spotlight, or you might see a little resentment from those waiting for their turn to shine.
Next time, we’re going to address the nature of villains and henchmen, and how to make player’s seethe when you mention their names… I have to admit, this is one of my specialties.
If you missed it, here is part one.
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.