5 Tips for Running Long-Term Epic Campaigns — RPT#507
By way of introduction, my name is John, I’m in my thirties, I live in Germany and I’ve been a thankful reader of this newsletter for quite some time now. I started role-playing at the age of 14, and my preferred system is the Palladium Fantasy Role Playing Game.
As with probably some of you, my typical role-playing session has changed over the years due to work, family and increased geographical distance to my group members. Therefore, we have adapted to more event-like sessions once or twice a year where we agree on a gaming weekend several months in advance. I tell you this because some of the tips described hereafter reflect this style and the fact that I have lots of preparation and thinking time.
First, I’d like to explain my understanding of what an epic campaign is. I’m sure many of you have experienced that kind of game mastering approach where the group has to reach a certain goal to prevent the entire world from going down every session (which also poses a comfortable means for the GM to motivate the group to follow his adventure idea).
Even worse, they are given an epic task too difficult for their experience level to complete, and in the end the “gods” or some other higher entity has to save them and finally solve the quest.
That’s not the kind of epic I am talking about. It is more that the goal has a deeper personal meaning for every PC involved, as well as substantial effects on the game world they are playing in.
Another aspect is a certain long-term perspective in which several quests form a greater story arc that slowly unfolds with every new adventure completed.
Yes, you need good gaming atmosphere, heroic music, props, an epic game setting and a dynamic campaign world (political, cultural, social change). But these aspects have already been covered before. The following are some tips that, in my opinion, take a more psychological approach to make the campaign feel more epic and predestined.
1. Interlink Their Background Stories
Because we plan our sessions long in advance, I have players send me an electronic version of the player character they intend to use via email about a month before our session starts. Compelling background stories receive bonus experience points.
Once I receive the PCs, I start to think of ways how these background stories could possibly be interlinked. Sometimes I ask the players for further relevant details to complete these links, or I have some or all of them run mini-solo-adventures per play-by-mail before we actually meet.
This has given some spice to most of our campaigns when these unknown interlinks slowly unfold during the campaign, and players realize that fate has brought them together to complete the task ahead.
Just recently I had a player actually turn pale as he realized his character had caused the assassination of another character’s brother, and the other player, still unaware of this, is on a quest to avenge the brother’s death. Well GM, lean back and enjoy!
Some more examples:
- Politics: One of the characters is a traitor from the Western Empire who fled with important military intelligence in his backpack. Another PC is a Western Empire spy sent out to prevent a traitor from handing over secret military information to the enemy and the spy has to find out who the traitor is.
- Family: Two characters are actually brothers who have been separated at birth. Alternatively, one PC is the father of another (works great with long-lived races such as elves or dwarves, but it may be a bit awkward for the players).
- Revenge: Two or more PCs are on a quest to take revenge on the same villain without knowing it.
- Loot: All PCs have a secret motivation to retrieve a certain item from a treasure vault (e.g., commanded by a deity to destroy it, needed to save a beloved one, lust for power). Who will get it in the end?
- Occupation: One PC is secretly a witch; another is secretly a witch hunter. Who discovers the other’s occupation first and how will the PC react? Are the adventures passed together stronger than their sworn mission?
- Shape changers: I once had two players separately approach me in secret and tell me they wanted to play a changeling in disguise. Changeling is a race that, due to public hysteria, is usually killed on sight due to the common understanding they kill the persons they impersonate. I then thought it would be funny to also talk the two remaining players into secretly playing a changeling. So I had four players trying to hide the fact they are a changeling from each other.
GM: There is a nice little bar in front of you.
Player 1: Well folks, I think we should not go in and rather go to bed early.
Player 2: I agree, the place looks too expensive anyways.
Player 3: Right, I have some errands to run and no time to go to a bar.
Player 4: Yeah, I wanted to practice my cooking skill anyways.]
- And now my all-time favorite: The Backwards Adventure. In this scenario, I started the campaign with the PCs all waking up on a river bank, dressed in nothing more than a linen shirt and complete loss of memory.
In reality, I had the players start with a blank sheet of paper and they had to rediscover their entire PC by role-playing (e.g., lift rocks to find out how strong they are, try out skills if they have any proficiency in them, talk to NPCs if they have met before, etc.). So, the only one who actually knew their background was me.
After several quests they found out they had been under the effect of an item called “Mind Wipe Mirror,” and upon destroying it they regained their full memories. So I handed each of them a sheet of paper with their individual background story.
Just imagine the tension around the table when they discovered they were all sworn arch-enemies before they fell under the spell.
The scene at the gaming table was the following: They silently read their background. Halfway through they start to peek at the players next to them. They all silently put the sheet down. And almost simultaneously they grabbed for their dice, shouted “Initiative!” and battled each other for almost two hours’ real time until the last man was standing.
So, with all the pranks I play to my players, you can imagine I’m pretty good by now at dodging dice and pencils thrown at me. But I ask them for feedback regularly and they seem to enjoy it a lot.
2. The “Squirrel Tactic” or “Hide Nuts for Later Use”!
It can be quite helpful if you place random items (magic or not) for which you have not yet developed a purpose in your running campaign.
For example, in one quest they subdue a demon and find a small wooden stick in its treasure hoard that registers as magic. Nobody knows what it is and no alchemist can identify it or wants to buy it. Due to the fact that it is magic, they usually carry this item along for the next couple of quests.
When you as GM finally have an idea what this item could be (such as the key to a long forgotten treasure vault or the cross piece of a magic wooden sword) the fact that they found it so early on in the campaign will lead to the impression that all that has happened followed a greater plan the whole time.
3.The Ever-Recurring Item
This is a variation of the Squirrel Tactic I have kept going for almost seven years now. In one of the first adventures of my current group, I placed a small clay statue of a screaming humanoid that seems to be indestructible in an ancient temple they explored.
Unfortunately, the whole group of PCs got killed some sessions after they found it. In another adventure with the same player group but different PCs, I had them stumble over the same statue again. Over the last years of playing, this has developed into some sort of a running gag, as sooner or later one of the current player characters’ stumbles across “Besescaba’s Final Scream” as they have decided to name it. Also they have put the little thing to various uses throughout the campaigns, such as to block traps with it, break crests, lock in a giant and many more.
I haven’t quite decided on a way to finally use it yet, but the fact alone they have known the artifact for such a long time will make the adventure special when they finally discover its purpose. I know, that’d better be spectacular, such as to resurrect all PCs that ever possessed it and send them on a glorious final mission or the like. Suggestions welcome.
4.The (Almost) Never-Ending Story
Continuously extrapolate the story. For example, have the PCs find a golden scepter in one adventure. In the next they discover this is the handle of an ancient battle axe that has been lost long ago. Have them search for the other pieces?
Then they find out this battle axe is one of five weapons that were forged by greater power to achieve_______. And if the weapons should ever be united again _______ happens. And so on.
This has to come to an end someday. But by that time it looks as if the entire campaign has followed a greater purpose all along.
Another variation is to combine the quests of different player groups to one greater epic campaign. This idea was born when I sat together with a friend who is also a game master in another group. We decided to have our groups run several adventures to retrieve two ancient artifacts on which we agreed.
On a predetermined weekend the other GM – without a word of explanation – got up from his chair when his group had gathered and asked them to follow him out of the house and into his car. He then drove over to my place where my (also unsuspecting) group was waiting.
We had the two groups play the final adventure of our campaigns together, as each group possessed one of the necessary artifacts to complete the quest. It was a priceless moment when the PCs got to know each other, because the players did not know each other before either.
5. Use Former PCs as NPCs
I am a big fan of developing campaign worlds. Therefore, every new adventure chronologically takes place after the last one. So the campaign world we play in has constantly developed in the last 17 years.
A great way to get the players personally involved in the story is to have them encounter their earlier selves in the form of former PCs who have grown old and settled down, as ghosts, visions, etc. The now NPCs then could ask them to complete the quests they themselves have not succeeded at (or hand over a small clay statue of a screaming humanoid that they feel should be passed on to the next PC crossing their path).
A Brief Word from Johnn
Minis Contest Ending Now
Get your entries in by November 30 for a chance to win packs of new D&D minis.
How To Enter
Email me a tip related to minis or battlemats.
- Do you have a cool minis storage or organization idea?
- A neat way you use minis in game?
- Ideas on how to use minis for better storytelling or faster combats?
Enter as many times as you like. Each entry gives you a chance to win packs of D&D Heroes minis by Wizards of the Coast, supplied by Gator Games.
Winners will be selected at random. Due to shipping restrictions, minis can only be sent to residents of Canada and United States. However, if you do not live in those countries and win, I’ll hook you up with a cool RPG PDF.
Email me your minis tips right now while you are thinking about it.
Riddleport Campaign Diary: Level Up
Last session the PCs gained a level, making it to 6th with only a few party casualties so far in the campaign. As NPCs average level 8 in my version of Riddleport, the group has finally achieved parity in their world and can walk about with a bit more ease.
However, in the process to achieving this great campaign milestone, they have made several enemies. They are now being hunted by clever githyanki. Dragonspawn have also taken notice and plot against them. Crime Lords in nearby city districts have also heard the name Chalice Bastards – the street name that has emerged amongst factions for the PCs – come up during reports from minions.
After brief encounters with each of these foes, the enemy is taking an more indirect route, as direct confrontation has proved deadly – for both sides. In a city full of starving pirate mercenaries hemmed in by terrible winter storms, there is no limit as to what a few gold guilders will buy now. When minions are cheap, the PCs shall weep.
Last session the PCs prepared for a githyanki assault on their inn. The PCs stole the leader’s silver sword, and the gith are desperate for its return. Such a loss of honour is crippling this unit’s reputation, and reports back home are being met with threats to make progress in the Riddleport mission else the situation will get “rectified.”
As a storm rages outside, a PC on lookout spots a fire in the northeast part of the city. Then he sees an ally, the leader of the church of Desna, stumbling through the gale winds toward the Silver Chalice inn. The PCs let him in and learn pirates have attacked The Temple of Dreams (church of Desna) and are sacking it. The pirates must not find a holy artefact hidden in the cellar. Will the PCs help?
They agree, but with reluctance and only after confirming the Desna leader is not an imposter. They arrive to see pirates crawling all over the three storey temple. They attempt to get in through a window and narrowly repulse a pirate attack. Wounded, they feel they cannot go on and retreat back to the Silver Chalice.
However, the Desna leader refuses to flee and fights his way deep into the temple alone. The PCs have not heard from him since.
During the battle, the barbarian got his hand chopped off by a pirate. So, the next day they approach their strange neighbor, Astrinus, and request he magically regrow Crixus’s missing appendage. Astrinus agrees on one condition: a foe of the party must sign a contract that Astrinus has so far been unsuccessful in getting signed.
The PCs agree and confront the foe in his gang headquarters. Eventually, through great roleplaying, the group finds the correct leverage and convinces the foe to sign. It’s a done deal, though the paladin objects and punches the barbarian in the head as a warning to stay on the honorable path.
We ended the session with the party agreeing to help a group of mages test their new construction: a flesh golem. The PCs’ patron has decided to turn this test combat into a full-fledged arena match. Thousands will attend. The group is confident they can handle their fabricated foe, but are nervous about potential tricks that could be afoot from their enemies.
That was session #15. We play #16 this week and I look forward to how the group handles the match plus other things that might pop up.
Reader Tip Request
How to Run a Zombie Campaign?
I was wondering if anyone could give me some tips on how to run a good zombie campaign. I mean, the main things that make a zombie campaign cool like scavenging for weapons, barricading a hideout, trying to get vehicles that run, running out of ammo.
I was wondering if anyone had any new or fresh ideas for going about any of these processes. It is easy to get bogged down with all that is going on in a zombie campaign, so any helpful tips or tricks on how to make this task any easier would be greatly appreciated. Thanks a lot.
Using Single Thugs to Spy on the PCs
From: Logan Horsford
Jarring mistakes within a game can knock aside the suspension of disbelief players want. For example, if you talk about a “silenced revolver” to a gun enthusiast, it will quite rightly be assumed the GM hasn’t a clue about firearms (1).
In many modules I’ve read, it is clear the writer doesn’t know anything about espionage (2). I’m going to talk about a couple aspects of tradecraft (3) to help you run more believable and interesting campaigns.
Tailing is following a target (person or small group) to learn what they’re up to. A single individual is not enough to tail the PCs. You need a group of five or more people tailing them, else I would suspect they’re amateurs.
This doesn’t mean a small group or individual tailer is not dangerous, but my first thought would be a group of thieves (and not very good ones at that) would do this rather than espionage or counter espionage (4) people. It could also be an under-funded individual who has a specific job, such as, “If anyone interesting arrives at the airport, see which hotel they check into.”
A professional won’t be able to keep an eye on the PCs for long. The chances of getting “made”(5) go up fast. If a professional believes the PCs are onto him, he will go into a store or walk by – preferring to give up the chase rather than risking being compromised or captured. As most PCs lack training and subtlety, it isn’t hard for the agent to know when they’ve been made.
If you have professionals tailing the PCs, then you have to make a decision based on what the opposition knows of the PCs. How much can they allocate toward surveillance? Due to the kind of things (and suspicious, bad things) the PCs do, the answer will quite often be “a lot.” Because professional tails aren’t something most GM’s are familiar with, I’m going to discuss them rather than the “bulldogging”(6) that most GMs seem to be intuitively familiar with.
First, remember that if an actual professional team is doing the surveillance, the players will never know for sure if they are being watched. Ever. They may get a bad feeling, an itching between the shoulder blades or feeling of being watched, but not for certain.
In a professional team, you will have, for example:
- A control vehicle (7) two or three blocks away the PCs will never see.
- To the side (not behind), walkers in front and to the side(s) who are changed out long before they’ve overstayed their welcome.
- Other vehicles and people to swap out and position where the PCs *might* go.
There could be over fifty people and a dozen different vehicles involved in this. There could be anything from helicopters to re-tasked satellites.
If the PCs are doing covert or illegal work, it is better for them to assume they are always being followed and act accordingly.
Most GMs assume players will spot the follower, chase him down and confront him. Many players do just that – but it’s not a good strategy. If the person is of at least average intelligence, they can claim not to have been following the PCs. They may also be having the PCs chase them back to where his buddies are waiting to ambush them.
A better tactic for the PCs is to get somewhere they can’t easily be overheard (like next to a bus) or can’t have their lips read and use the phone-a-friend option.
“Todd? Yeah, I’ve picked up a tail – can you come with a couple of guys to keep an eye on him? Here’s what he looks like and here’s where I am. Call me when you’re in position and I’ll shake him.”
Todd and his team show up, phone the PC back when in position, and the PC loses the tail.
With a single PC or small group (and assuming they’re not out of shape (8) or have a car that is nowhere near their car) it’s not difficult to lose a tail.
Now, the tail is in the uncomfortable position of having not a clue where you went. What will he do? He’ll probably stand around looking stupid, maybe call his boss and ask for instructions. He may wander around trying to reacquire the PC.
But eventually, he’ll have to go one of two places – home or office – with the PC’s friends tailing him. Now, the hunter becomes the hunted.
Isn’t that a better tactic than trying to beat the truth out of him in a dark alley? Using this technique – if done correctly – the people following might not even realize they have been made.
It’s easy for small groups to lose their target completely by chance. The target manages to get onto a subway just before the doors close. The car you’ve carefully kept between you and the target stops for a red light but the target vehicle makes it through on the yellow. If the enemy doesn’t know you’re on to them – and if you know where they work and possibly where they live – you have a huge advantage over them that can be exploited later.
Another good technique to use if you believe you are being followed – and the only one I would ever recommend to someone in real life – is to head to the local police station. If you can gather a good description of the people tailing you on the way (9), that can assist the authorities. Usually, just walking into a police station will quickly shake the most ardent of pursuers.
A note on the electronics used during surveillance. If someone pulls out a walkie-talkie, the campaign had better be set during the 1970’s or 1980’s. These days, they have invisible microphone and ear pieces that people can talk into. You won’t see the big wires going into people’s fears that mark them (10).
Why not use cell phones? Maybe a little conference calling? These days, everyone is on a cell phone chatting or texting pretty much constantly, so it doesn’t stand out.
Keep in mind that women are often better at following people than men. People generally feel less threatened when a woman follows them. Frumpy or plain women with comfortable walking shoes and large purses that can hold other bits of clothing to alter their appearance and presto – they’re invisible.
I hope this gives you more options on how to have the PCs tailed than one or two thugs lurking behind them (11). Hopefully, the PCs have a couple more tricks up their sleeve than chasing down some guy to hear whatever lies he’s willing to give them under extreme duress.
Happy hunting![If anyone has a question about espionage as it pertains to gaming, please contact me through Johnn Four.]
(1) Silencers, more accurately called suppressors or noise suppressors, function by controlling the escaping gas from the weapon to lower its noise output.
There is space around the cylinder (the thing that holds the bullets) of a revolver. This allows the gas to escape from the sides of the weapon, thus rendering the silencer mostly useless aside from cutting down on the muzzle flash (big flame out the end of the barrel).
Because gun makers can’t leave well enough alone, there is one pistol I am aware of – the Nagant M1895 – that has a sealed cylinder, but that’s a pretty unusual weapon.
Better for GMs just to keep silencers on clip fed semi- automatics.
YouTube of the Nagant for those interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvF4yurWSc0
(2) Although I would not consider myself an expert in this field, I have worked in the intelligence community for several years (I’m out now) in more countries than I can recall and have learned from a variety of people some basic tradecraft.
(3) Spy techniques.
(4) People who stop people from spying or keep an eye out for terrorists or thugs like the PCs.
(5) Spotted by the opposition.
(6) This does not pertain to rodeo! During the cold war, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, KGB agents were famous for their method of tailing people to the point where it got its own nickname.
Bulldogging refers to getting a couple men in tight fitting suits to stay a precise distance (say ten to fifty feet) behind the target. If the target stopped, they stopped. The clever ones might even look into a window rather than glare malevolently at the PCs.
Although this technique is laughably simplistic, it is good for purposes of intimidation or to keep the PCs busy while you search their hotel room. Also, it seems this phrase (bulldogging) has gone out of spy vogue.
(7) Usually a van stuffed with a bunch of electronics and communication gear for coordination of all of the other watchers.
(8) Like me! I’d personally go for the car option.
(9) Rather than turning your head and announcing to the people following you, “I see you!” I recommend using the myriad of reflective surfaces found in the average urban environment.
(10) I realize the US Secret Service does use the big wires that go to their ears. This is because they *want* you to know “this guy is secret service.” Wearing a sign that says “I’m Secret Service, don’t start trouble” would be considered unstylish. They do have a lot of people in the crowds *not* wearing the ear pieces.
(11) The correct way of tailing people is from the front and sides.
Game Master Tips & Tricks
Do you have a game mastering tip to share? E-mail [email protected] – thanks!
1. Being Succinct Is Ok
re: A Boring GM from RPT#505 http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=505#request
I think PH’s comment is a bit harsh. Roleplaying is a two-way street and you have to communicate and be honest about what you want. If as a player you want more details, then ask for them. I’m sure the GM will quickly learn this is what his players want if these details are requested regularly.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with GMs relaying short, succinct, factual descriptions. I am a GM and a player, and I don’t think adding more descriptions (while nice) is crucial. I have been in some games where there was so much description I forgot what we were doing before trying to digest the information.
The core description is fine (unless some detail is particularly pertinent to the game). I’m sure players can use their imaginations to flesh out the necessary particulars.
This style suits my group as we like getting things done (perhaps more ‘roll’ then ‘role’). So sometimes GM description can get in the way of advancing the story or the action (player decision making, dice rolling) and inhibit players imagining the scenarios themselves.
Each group is going to have its own dynamic and style, but I recommend GM descriptive-lite and provide more on request.
2. Try Player Input
re: A Boring GM from RPT#505 http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=505#request
Here are two ways players can try to flesh out sparse details to help their GM out and satisfy their own needs.
Ask Questions – But Offer Suggestions
My players do this well and I love it. They will ask me to clarify and expand on something but also provide suggestions. This makes my job much easier as I can take their suggestions (with thanks) or use their ideas to inspire my own.
I bet your GM would appreciate the same.
GM: You find a bag of gems.
Player: Awesome! What are they in? Maybe a velveteen pouch, or maybe just a worn leather pouch?
GM: Good call. Yeah, it’s a small bag made with purple velvet. It has a gold draw string. It has a gold stitched logo as well, which you’ve never seen before.
Pitch The Details Yourself
Ask the GM before the game if it is ok to make up minor details yourself and present to the GM for approval. You can do this between sessions by email or with a note in-game. Keep a stack of small index cards handy and just fill ’em out with details about people, places, things and rules as you go. Pass over to your GM to approve or edit.
Details Are Infectious
As players offer me a lot of details questions and ideas, I found after a bit of initial resistance on my part that this is an awesome help for the campaign. I now readily accept everyone’s ideas and flesh them out even further, if I’m able, which my players seem to enjoy (in a “cool, the GM used my idea” sort of way).
I was initially worried about breaking immersion. If ideas are coming from players, will players feel like the fourth wall of the campaign has been broken. Has the Wizard of Oz pulled aside the curtain, ruining the fantasy?
However, it has not worked like that. Just like we are able to pause our sense of disbelief to handle an out of character question about the rules or situation, and then quickly jump back in when in-game play resumes, so too does it work this way with player driven details. It’s amazing how our brains can be so agile!
I have also found player suggestions on details helps me provide unprompted details about things. It is a kind of mindset, which I have talked about before in the newsletter, where you envision a scene in your head while planning or GMing, and explore it in your mind to crystalize details and pass them onto the group.
As players provide details on their own, this gives me an ongoing pool of suggestions and inspiration. “Hey, I never thought to detail the container that gems in a foe’s pocket come in. Cool!”
3. Use The Movie Style Intro
Hi there Johnn!
A trick I use for special occasions or special missions is the Movie Style Intro. It helps get the players into the mood.
With pre-planning, I have a song on pause on the stereo, slightly cranked up and ready to go when I hit play.
Once players are ready, I start with a movie style intro, not even involving the characters. It is kind of a lead up or foreshadowing of the mission, similar to movies before the beginning credits roll.
For example, I was GM to an espionage mission. The intro started with an egotistical, overblown description from another agent to the Bureau Chief of how he did this, how he was awesome at that, how he narrowly escaped the ambush, etc.
Then the phone rings, the Chief answers it, and is told a shipment of nuclear rods was stolen from the Russian test missile site in Novosibirsk.
He looks worried, then picks up another phone and says “Get me Agents X” (the player characters). Then I hit play and the room was bathed in the sound of a James Bond soundtrack.
This type of thing makes the characters feel special, like they’re actually in the movies, because we have all seen this happen many times.
4. A Fast Way to Settle Rules Disputes: Roll for It
From: Jason Dayspring & Rendrin J’tal
Just a quick tip that works for our group. The GM assigns everyone (including himself) a Game Knowledge stat. We use a range of 4-30 with the same bonuses as 4th D&D (subtract 10, divide by 2). This stat gets written at the top of character sheets, and the GM adjusts them as needed.
When a rule debate starts, everyone that cares rolls a d20 and adds (or subtracts) their Game Knowledge stat modifier. Highest wins the debate. The GM’s assistant writes the rule question down for later, and the game moves on.
It’s quick, and no one complains about it not being fair. As an added bonus, the GK stat encourages good behavior, as points often get taken away for being disruptive and rewarded for good roleplaying.
5. Story Spine for Plotting
From: Stephen McAllister
I was reading a book on improve, and as you know storytelling is a central component of most improve performances. Most of the time I find the suggestions for storytelling are either too abstract and delve into discussion about the ego, or too concrete, rigid and genre specific. However, this time I found something interesting: the story spine.
The words are more for traditional folk tales but they can have adjusted for atmosphere:
Once upon a time….
But one day….
Because of that 1….
Because of that 2….
Because of that and so on (repeat as needed) ….
Ever since then….
This tool is great for plotting because it gives you a compass you can use in your scenes depending if you want to advance the narrative, mix it up and start in the middle of the story, or color the scenes and tie together each strand.
It’s simple enough to memorize, and because it is so stripped down you can flesh things out any way you like. If you decide to use this tool, let me know how it works for you.[Comment from Johnn: Great tip! Thanks for writing in, Stephen.
You should check out Amagi Games for similar tools. For example, Long Knives: https://sites.google.com/site/amagigames/long-knives ]