12 Steps To An Epic Campaign – Part II

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0251

A Brief Word From Johnn

HTML Help Request

Howdy! I’m sorry to bother you with a help request, but I need some weekly help formatting the HTML version of the e-zine for the web site. I’ve found that an issue takes about an hour to do, so you’d need that amount of time available during the week to mark-up the issue. I have a NoteTab Pro script that speeds things up as well, if you’re a NoteTab Pro user.

Some CSS knowledge would be great too, as I’d like to retrofit the archived issues with some CSS.

If you have the time and inclination, and would be interested in helping each week on an on-going basis, I’d sure appreciate the assistance! Thanks.

Crib Board Is Working Well 

For the two campaigns I’m running, I use a crib board to track combat rounds, spell and ability durations. It works great:

  • White pegs are for counting rounds
  • Blue pegs are for PC spell and ability durations
  • Red pegs are for Foe spell and ability durations

When a duration spell triggers, I just put a peg ahead of the current initiative to mark when it ends. When the white peg catches up with the spell peg, I know the spell has expired.

If the action stops for a moment and parley erupts (gasp!), I roughly track time passing in real-time by incrementing the white initiative pegs every few seconds or so. This lets the players know that time is passing–an important point of communication if there are spells and abilities with limited durations currently running.

I have two upgrades in mind next. I think I’m going to make my own board with ten holes per row. I find two holes per row (or tracks, if you prefer) are too few when multiple spells and foes are involved.

The other tweak I’d like to make is to buy more pegs from the nearby Dollar Store. I’d like to designate some pegs permanently for commonly used spell effects to make visual tracking easier.

More campaign news from the trenches in future issues.

Be sure to get some gaming or planning done this week!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

(My wife is a subscriber of this e-zine, and while she doesn’t play RPGs she admitted to reading the Brief Word section from time to time. So, I’d like to say, hi honey, I’ll shovel the driveway after I’m finished doing some game planning.

12 Steps To An Epic Campaign – Part II

Last week, we discussed the first six components of an effective process for crafting epic campaigns:

  1. Before
  2. After
  3. Transformations
  4. Ground Rules
  5. Explanations
  6. Cataclysms

Today, I’d like to show you the other six ingredients in my epic recipe:

  1.  Exit Clauses
  2. Choices
  3. Character Developments
  4. Timing
  5. Side Issues
  6. Unpredictability

Exit Clauses

By now, much of the campaign should be planned, at least in outline form. You should have some idea of:

  1. How the PCs will learn the essential concepts and background.
  2. What each character will bring to the campaign.
  3. What you will need to use NPCs to highlight.

It should also be clear that the campaign will run for several years!

Any referee who thinks that his PC lineup will remain stable for that length of time is deluding himself. Players will leave and new players arrive. Characters will die or disappear. And any of this can happen at any time. It’s a rare campaign that doesn’t have some roster shake-up within 6 sessions of play!

The referee needs to be ready for all of this by opening a file on each of them. Anytime a PC learns something that the others don’t know (but that is essential to the campaign), it should be noted in their records. Anytime one gains possession of a Plot Device (usually a magic item, but it could be a map, a book that can’t be translated, a scroll with some exotic spell on it…), the referee needs to make a note of it.

Anytime there is a task that the character is intended to eventually perform, or a role that they need to play in order for the campaign to reach its epic conclusion, the referee needs to write it down in their file and then tick off these tasks as they are achieved.

With this file, should the character be killed or should the player leave – for whatever reason – the referee knows what he needs in order to replace the character. It gives a basis for rejecting a proposed new character, or for introducing a new NPC, or whatever else may be needed to follow the road map.

What’s more, for each character, the referee should have a plan for writing that character out, should it become necessary because the player has left the group. That plan can be as simple as “NPC until they do X,” or it can be as complicated as adding a whole new scenario to the plan so that the other PCs get to learn the secrets that the old character took with him. At all costs, avoid placing the campaign in a position where an NPC has to make a vital decision upon which the campaign will turn!

Of course, any time this sort of thing takes place, it also presents the referee with an opportunity. Instead of trying to force-fit characters into predefined roles, try to integrate the characters with your plans, adding whatever uniqueness they present to the overall plan. Reevaluate what you have established and what you have planned, and discard your assumptions. Try to arrange things so that the campaign grows organically from the PCs and their choices and behaviour. Plot trains are never welcome!


Choice is all important in roleplaying. It’s the character’s choices that ultimately drive where the campaign will go and where it won’t. Make sure that the players can see the logical consequences of their choices taking place in the world around them. Remember though, that the NPCs will make choices too based on the best information that they have, as coloured by their personalities and world-view.

It’s not going too far to say that the entire concept of an epic campaign is built around the concept of choice. Will Frodo take up the one ring or will he sneak out of Rivendell late on the night before the council? Will Zumash simply take the treasure, or will he despoil the idol as well? Players will forgive just about anything the referee does, if it’s a logical consequence of a PC’s decision? (The same is not true of an NPC’s decision! Players give referees just so much room to manouver before they feel their characters are being picked on.)

It’s easy to make the obvious choices – good and evil, riches or glory, that sort of thing. The major choices in an epic campaign should be much harder. A choice between two evils. A choice between what’s good for some but bad for others. A choice between the short term and the long term. The important choices should always be hard ones.

It’s important to prepare the characters for the choices that are before them. The most obvious way is to have advocates for each alternative speak their mind. A less obvious one is to use analogy and metaphor and legend. An even more subtle variation is to have the characters actually encounter situations that are metaphors for the different choices.

Referees should always bear in mind the prejudices and limitations of their players when setting up these choices. A lot of players find it very hard to shuck off 20th century notions of romance, justice, and civil rights. When these are taken into account, a hard choice can become no choice at all!

Remember, when faced with a hard and equal choice, the smallest difference can swing the balance one way or another, and that leaves even the best players vulnerable to cultural carryovers. It can be very entertaining and educational (to the referee at least) to use these prejudices against the players, but doing so is a risky move. They can decide that they simply can’t get comfortable with the campaign and drop out.

I try to take the possible 21st century prejudices of the players into account when presenting them with a choice so that the choices are evenly balanced if the character thinks with his player’s predispositions. Then I award extra XP for roleplaying if the character makes the choice that is opposed by modern standards of conduct, thought, and morality.

At the same time, though, it must be remembered that the principle purpose of the game is not to faithfully recreate in a game setting the horrors of a past age of barbarism. It is for a group of modern-day people to have fun, and a very small amount of this sort of thing goes a very long way. If the players wanted a history lesson, they would be doing something else! (The same holds true for morality, philosophy, ethics, law, economics…just about anything, in fact. If you have to explain it, think carefully about using it.)

Before the players are forced to make a choice, the referee has to choose to put them in a position where their choice will matter – and your choices are no less difficult than the ones you are asking of the player characters.

Character Developments

If you outlaw it, your players will insist on having it. I’m talking about feats, classes, races, spells, etc. They will want to know why and will find endless nice things to say about it. And the more valid the reasons you offer (from your point of view), the more debate you invite.

The worst reason (that is, the one that will provoke the most backchat) is “game balance”. The counter-argument most commonly thrown back at you is that it’s not unbalancing if both PCs and referees have access to it, and furthermore it’s not unbalanced anyway.

The next worst reason is that you want it that way because it fits the campaign that you want to run. This will be reinterpreted to mean “I don’t want it so you can’t have it.” For example, I disliked the traditional use of clerics as hit-point drip bottles, so I set things up in such a way that healing spells simply compressed time enough for the injury to heal as it would have naturally – it just happened a lot faster.

That meant that bones had to be set first (or they would heal crooked), that healing caused an incapacitating wave of pain, taking the character being healed out of combat for a round, that wounds left scars, and so on. It’s all fairly reasonable – I could have taken it further and had characters roll against starving to death if too much time was compressed for them, for example. But the howls of protest from the players were unbelievable, and they literally moved heaven and earth (well, heaven anyway) to change the situation.

The best reason is one that involves campaign background, particularly if there is a pathway to achieving or obtaining whatever “it” is. For example, one player wanted to be a BladeDancer – an alternate class from Dragon magazine or somesuch. The basic concept of the class fit the campaign world reasonably well. The only problem was that the party had already been through a situation in which the BladeDancer class would have been the logical solution, and thus it had been established that there weren’t no such animal.

The solution: decide that there had been such a class a long time ago, but that they died out – and promise the character the opportunity to resurrect the profession. For that PC, it would be a prestige class; thereafter, if they played their cards right, it would be available to all members of their race. This changed a lose-lose situation into a win-win.

And that brings me to the subject at hand – character development in an epic campaign. Because it runs for so long, it’s a fair bet that characters will have lots of levels of development. It’s a certainty that before the campaign concludes, at least one player will want to take a character class that simply doesn’t fit the campaign world. If you, as referee, don’t prepare for this situation, you are sure to be put in the situation of having a very aggrieved player insisting, “but I wouldn’t have taken those two levels of X,” or “I would have done Y instead.”

There are three things that you, as referee, need to do to be prepared for this so as to avoid hurt feelings and unexpected collisions.

Require players to state what their next class level is going to be at the time they complete the current one.

That generally gives you time to review in advance what they want. Better yet, get them to give a rough development plan for the next half-dozen or so levels so that you can seed the campaign with subplots and encounters that let them fill the requirements.

Be prepared to compromise.

If the player really wants something, do your best to make it possible for them to get it – eventually. Get them to help you. Is the problem with the mechanics of the class – some special ability that it has, for example? Then explain the problem and offer them the class with something else substituted. Get them to explain why they want that particular item, or spell, or class. Is it a problem with the textual description of the class not fitting the background? If so, rewrite it.

Horse trade.

If the character’s taking of class X will interfere with the next scenario, but you’re perfectly willing for them to have it afterwards, tell them that. Offer to waive any game mechanic prohibitions that would prevent them taking it then (and come up with an in-play excuse for that to happen). Offer them a magic item that the character will find useful. If you have to, come up with a deus ex machina that lets them convert the level/item/spell they do take into the one they want when it will no longer disrupt everything.

Your campaign plan should make allowances for, and provide the requirements for, the development of the characters along the lines the players desire. It’s hard to do that without knowing what it is that they want.


Timing is very important in an epic campaign. There should be a discernible rhythm; when all is calm, events should plod along with ample time and flexibility for exploration and discovery. As events approach a climax, the pace should quicken.

But that’s only the most obvious aspect of timing. In a campaign with so much character development, it can be very hard to judge how quickly the characters will advance – and, if you’re not careful, you can end up with party of 13th level characters romping through a fourth level scenario. As characters advance, they gain in abilities – especially the spellcasters and clerics – and these can throw your plans into a cocked hoop. Let me amend that: these will throw your plans into a cocked hoop!

It took a long time to devise a way to deal with this problem (and I’ve yet to actually put it into practice, so be warned!). The idea is to take each of those scenario steps and work out three subversions of each. The first one is “as written.” The second one assumes that the characters are four levels higher than you expected and consists of a couple of quick notes on how to ramp up the scenario difficulty level to cope. The third does the same for two levels more plus any carried-over extra levels from previous scenarios.

For example, let’s say that scenario #1 should take the characters to fourth level, scenario #2 should get them to sixth level, and scenario #3 to tenth level.

Scenario 1a would anticipate the characters coming out of it at 8th level. That means the second half will probably be affected. Scenario 2a would assume that the characters started at 8th level and came out at 6+4=10th level. Scenario 3a would assume that the characters started at 10th level and will come out at 14th.

Scenario 1b would anticipate the characters coming out at 6th level. That means that the spellcasters will have 3rd level spells for roughly the last third of the scenario. Scenario 2b would assume that the characters started at 8th level (from 2a) and come out at 8+2+2=12th level (not 6th!). Scenario 3b would assume that the characters started at 12th level (from 2b) and emerge at 12+4+2=18th level (the +4 is the 4 levels they are expected to get, the +2 is the two extra that comes from a ‘b’ assumption).

After scenario 1, look at what levels the characters have achieved and start off from scenario 2 at that level. I will lay odds that you’ll end up using the ‘b’ plan!

The third aspect of timing is to give the characters an opportunity to perceive the consequences of the choices they made as part of the climax to the previous scenario. In other words, follow each major scenario with a mini-scenario that does nothing but expend time. Give rumours, innuendo, and reactions time to percolate through the community.

These mini-scenarios should be self-contained and hold little or nothing in the way of long-term significance. At best, they should lay the groundwork for a future major scenario. This not only gives everyone involved a chance to catch their breaths, it gives the players a chance to feel that their players have achieved something, and gives them the chance to enjoy the fruits of victory (or suffer the agonies of defeat, as the case may be). Of course, these mini-scenarios should also be factored into the planned character development of the PCs – they WILL get XP from them!

Timing is very important to an epic campaign!

Side Issues

If everything in a campaign is relevant to the main plot, the campaign begins to constrict. The players will begin to demand free time for their characters. It means nothing to make the time free and then just skip over it – you have to play the free time. Give the characters a chance to get into mischief every now and then.

The best way to make sure that something happens of interest is with what I call microscenarios. These are even smaller than mini-scenarios. They probably won’t generate much in the way of XP. Often, they are a single encounter, plus the consequences.

A pickpocket gets caught and tries to appear innocent by planting the booty in a PC’s pocket. A lay preacher tries to foretell doom and gloom in the town square. A barbarian gets drunk and knocks on the wrong door. A chicken escapes from its coop and a 500 GP reward is offered for its return. A beggar is given a copper piece by a PC and begins to follow him everywhere, seeming to recognise him no matter how he disguises himself.

Think of something outrageous, and then let events proceed as far as they will, at their own pace. It not only helps integrate the characters with the game world, it’s light entertainment for everyone.

You should also integrate some of these things into the main scenarios. An old rivalry between NPCs who haven’t met in the PC’s presence before, for example. This helps add to the believability of the big scenarios as they start out just like “everyday life” for the characters, and it helps with the pacing aspect of the campaign raised in point 10.

Think mundane – with a twist.


The last ingredient in an epic campaign is unpredictability. Immediately after a player predicts exactly what you were going to do, change it! The guy on the throne with the smarmy smile and the eye-patch, stroking the cat, is not the big villain -just the flunky. The real villain is the cat, which is actually a robotic extension for a supercomputer hidden in the throne. Maybe the guy with the cat is actually a good guy, and the mission the PCs thought they were on is not what it seemed.

Of course, once the players get used to this, they will start second-guessing that there’s going to be a plot twist. Once you reach this point, it’s no good going back to doing the obvious – it will just seem insipid and dull, and will disappoint the players even as it surprises them. So insert a plot twist somewhere else.

No-one likes to read a book that gives away the big surprise on the first page. In an ordinary, disconnected campaign, you can get away with the occasional spot of predictability, but in an epic campaign, the predictable does not merely weigh down a single scenario, it’s a millstone around the neck of the whole campaign.

So, there you have it, everything you need to run a campaign that will keep your players talking for years afterward – perhaps even for as long as the campaign itself!

Good playing!

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Using 3D Moulded Props 

As you might know, Dwarven Forge–who creates those really cool, highly detailed, 3D moulded and painted pieces for use with figs and minis–sponsors this e-zine. My thanks to Jeff Martin at Dwarven Forge and to all the readers who have purchased from them and mentioned the ads in this e-zine!

I have played and GM’d with Dwarven Forge products, and have a couple of tips to share about that in the future. I’d also like to hear your tips on using moulded pieces for your RPG gaming and put together an issue on the topic.

So, whether you use Dwarven Forge products, or craft your own 3D moulded pieces, please share your tips about:

  • Storing them
  • Moving them and travelling with them
  • Organizing them
  • Session planning with their use in mind
  • In-game use for GMs
  • In-game use for players
  • Homemade moulds and crafting pieces yourself

Send your tips to: [email protected]

Thanks very much!


Do your caverns just seem like hard-to-map dungeons? Give players the feel of the genuine underground with Bits of Darkness: Caverns from Tabletop Adventures. We have provided 120 shadowy descriptions to bring the awe of the subterranean world to your game. Place them randomly, or with malice aforethought! Augment your imagination with Bits of Darkness: Caverns. Use this product “on the go” – buy it today and play it tonight! Only $4.95, PDF, available at RPGNow.com

Crystal Caste – Quality Products for Serious Gamers.

Castles & Crusades U1 Shadows of the Halfling Hall

Check Out The Relaunched THE RPG CONSORTIUM 

The RPG Consortium has relaunched its doors and is back into action! The RPG Consortium is an online community and resource site for all types of roleplayers. Check out gaming articles featuring tips on how to game master to new character ideas including other topics such as “A Guide to Online Game Management”! Come roleplay in our PBP forums or join in on discussions over at our community section where roleplayers can discuss everyday non-RPG topics as well. We’re working hard to add more features everyday, so come check us out!


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

 Random Encounter Seeds

From Ria Kennedy

I have been looking for an easy and useful random encounter list that has multiple uses and can be customized to fit the setting, world, and story needs. I like to pre-generate random encounters and drop them in when things get slow or to add drama. This way, I can add depth to the story or give a break from the story.

This is the best I could come up with and thought others might find it handy. Everyone should detail it according to their needs.

Here it is:

Run Into People (Specify according to setting and need)

  1. Thieves
  2. Bandits/Pirates
  3. Gypsies
  4. Muggers
  5. Someone in trouble
  6. Someone selling something
  7. Spy
  8. Scout
  9. Assassin
  10. Murderer
  11. Travelers
  12. Wildmen
  13. Enemy
  14. Hunters
  15. Guard/Patrol
  16. Searchers
  17. Seekers
  18. Merchants
  19. Caravan
  20. Beggars
  21. Smugglers
  22. Slavers

Run Into Monster (Specify according to setting and need)

  1. Orcs
  2. Goblins
  3. Undead
  4. Monster
  5. Other

Run Into Animal (Specify according to time of day and area)

  1. Animal, passive
  2. Animal, aggressive
  3. Animal, herd
  4. Animal, special

Weather (Specify and detail to story or atmosphere needs)

  1. Weather, good
  2. Weather, bad
  3. Weather, okay
  4. Weather, impassable

Terrain (Detail)

  1. Terrain, fast
  2. Terrain, slow
  3. Terrain, normal
  4. Terrain, hard work

Pass By/Enter

  1. Farm
  2. Village
  3. City
  4. Abandoned building/dwelling
  5. Grave Yard/Burial Site
  6. Battle Site
  7. Ambush Zone
  8. Ruins
  9. Home
  10. Business
  11. Service Center (i.e. the guard, town hall)
  12. Natural Wonder


  1. Complication
  2. Bureaucracy
  3. Someone/All will fall
  4. Something collapses/breaks
  5. Glare/Smoke – Hard to see
  6. Horror/Fear
  7. new NPC/monster joins the fray
  8. A new danger appears
  9. Something secret
  10. Something breaks
  11. Noise is made
  12. Something drops
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Take Action

From Darren Cummings

The DM can’t help you if you aren’t doing anything. If the players begin simply talking through the situation and concluding that there is no solution, then they are creating that reality. Even where it seems hopeless, you can always take action that opens the door for the DM to provide new information or options (or to direct your attention to something you’ve overlooked).

Example #1:

The party is trapped in a dead-end passageway fighting a slow battle against an overwhelming force at the entranceway. As their hit points trickle away, so does their hope. Some parties will endlessly discuss whether there is anything on their character sheets that can get them out.

What is often more helpful is to creatively act: search for hidden doorways, pray for enlightenment, tap on the walls to attract potential help, cast divinations on your opponents (what if Know Alignment reveals that one of those orcs in the back is lawful good?)…give the DM an excuse to provide you with an additional option for getting out.

Example #2:

The thief and the ranger have scouted out the enemy stronghold and the party has spent an hour constructing and abandoning plans to fight or sneak through the only apparent entrance. The game is at a standstill and creative action is needed: scout a second time, look at the place from different perspectives, talk to critters who live near it, observe it at night or by infravision, try to contact an unhappy denizen…give the DM an excuse to provide you with an additional option for getting in.

Although DMs try to run an impartial world, the reality is that this is still a game and most DMs instinctively reward courage and creativity more than cautious chess-playing.

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Character Creation Process Tip

From Debra Childers

Here’s how I usually create a character. Usually, I start with a picture that I create on Heromachine (www.heromachine.com). The way a person looks and dresses says a lot about them. When I’m making my picture, I usually try to have a class in mind, but not much else. Then I just create a character that I think looks interesting.

Next, I will create my character while still thinking about the background and what sort of experiences would create a person with the skills, ability, and appearance of my character. Once I’ve finished character creation, I begin filling out a character background questionnaire that I found on DndResources.com. It is 144 questions and really gets into the fears, hopes, and dreams of the character.

But it doesn’t explicitly ask about any background story. Usually by the time I’m done with it though, I have a pretty good idea of my character’s history and I’ll usually do a seperate write-up of that. By the time I’m done with all this, I know my character pretty well and I get to bring out all sorts of interesting quirks just because I know them so well.

As a DM, I usually determine whether a character is well- made by the number of plot hooks in their history. If there is no one who can come back to haunt them, start over. If there is no one who they love or who loves them, start over.

Every character history should have at least one unresolved conflict. I used to give points to my players based on the number of plot hooks in their character backgrounds. I would read their history with a highlighter. The more conflict there is in a character’s history, the more a DM can tailor adventures to suit them.

That said, there is a such thing as too much conflict. If your character is a giant ball of problems, it might take the emphasis away from the group a little too much or the DM might not be quite sure where to start. I would say, one or two major unsolved issues and maybe three or so minor unsolved issues is plenty.

Now that I’ve rambled on, I hope you can actually get something useful for other people out of this.

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A Great Pair Of Player Articles

From Derek McKay

May I suggest two articles about role-playing, as seen from the player’s point of view. They are:

How to Create a Role-Playing Character
Enhanced Role-Playing: The Player’s Perspective

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Get Your Props At The Dollar Store

From Dr. Nik

Personally, I find that Dollar Stores are a great supply of fodder.

This past week I picked up three sets of three trees ($1 each) and two sets of street signs and posts (for modern games) all from holiday display closeout stock.

In terms of rocks, trees, and shrubs, if you don’t mind a bit of painting, I suggest you look at the craft shops for the following:

  1. A bag of wooden knobs. Throw on some green or grey spray paint and you’ve got shrubs and rocks. Do some dry brushing for texture and depth – voila!
  2. Wooden Dowels. Cut into sections. 1/2 inch, 1 inch, and 1 1/2 inch dowels make excellent tree trunks. Plus, you can put a character on top of them to represent them climbing.
  3. Jenga Blocks. Jenga blocks, when painted grey or black, make excellent “Walls.” You can quickly rearrange them from room to room to hallway. When laid out on a map grid, they work wonderful.