Going Epic – Keys to building, playing, and concluding the epic story
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.