This is the first of a three part series on how to have an epic campaign in three acts. What constitutes an act may be a session, a month of gaming, or a certain span of achievement (i.e. – 10 levels of character advancement in D&D 4th Edition). This first part deals with the pre-campaign tasks and the first act.
epic – noting or pertaining to a long poetic composition, usually centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements or events is narrated in elevated style
The above definition was taken from Dictionary.com .
I have given several seminars for game masters at conventions, and one of the common questions that many attendees ask is “How do I run an epic campaign?” This is a very difficult question to answer because while we may share a definition for epic our personal interpretations of what is, or is not, epic are subjective.
What is “epic” for your group?
Before you can plan the first act of your new epic campaign you must understand what the members of your group consider to be worthy of that title. For some groups it will be a campaign culminating in a battle with a dragon, and for others it will be a campaign culminating in an army of dragons laying siege upon the gods themselves as the universe crumbles to pieces around them.
The temptation is to keep escalating the situation, but there is a thin line between one person’s epic and another’s ludicrous. For some gamers that single dragon battle will be pretty standard fare for a fantasy game, and for others that army-of-dragons-versus-the-gods idea will be way over the top. Ask your players direct questions about when that line is crossed for them. Your goal is not to pinpoint when the scale tips from epic to ludicrous with these questions. You just want to get a feel for how in synch you and your group are in regards to what an epic campaign means, and then play to the middle ground.
In an odd way a campaign is like a date. It is better for the people to get to know each other and to establish boundaries early on instead of crossing a boundary unintentionally and getting slapped in the face for it. Although I have yet to be slapped in the face by a group of players…
Stories for another time. For now, let’s move on with the three parts of an epic campaign.
Act One: Establish the Villains, the Heroes, & the Threat.
Who the heroes are is easy. They are the PCs. But what makes the PCs heroes is what the first act is really about.
We are going to need a threat that is truly grand in order to have an epic campaign. That means that we have to have a sense of scale. If you were running a supers campaign a threat to the entire city might work if the heroes were of a certain power level like Batman , Robin , and similar characters. Throw in Superman  and you might have to raise the threat to a national level. Throw in the entire Justice League of America  and you should have a threat at the global level.
Whatever level your threat feels right at you now need villains that can carry out that threat. Your big bad evil mastermind should be able to deal with the heroes easily at this point of the campaign. In fact, the mastermind should not even care about the heroes. So surround the mastermind with henchmen that the heroes can stand a chance against. The mastermind should make an appearance early in the campaign to establish the threat, look down upon the heroes, order the henchmen to take care of the PCs, and then leave. We won’t see the mastermind again until the second act.
The Secret Ingredients
Now your PCs know who is the mastermind, what the threat is, and hopefully they have a general sense of what they have to do to stop the mastermind. Here is the kicker – the PCs should feel overwhelmed. The threat is too big, the mastermind is too tough, and the PCs are just plain outclassed. The moment you feel that your players are seriously worried you introduce two things: the first wave of destruction, and a glimmer of hope.
The first wave of destruction is a sampler of the full threat. It is targeted at a smaller scale than the full threat. So if the threat is at the city level it targets city hall, at the national level it targets a few states or provinces, and at the global level it targets a country or continent. The threat is going to take out that target or alter it in a fundamental way. The heroes are not going to stop this first wave. Cry “Railroading!” if you want to, but in some cases a pre-determined outcome is good for a game if you give the players greater input elsewhere.
And that is where the glimmer of hope comes into play! The PCs may not be able to prevent that first wave of destruction, but they are going to save something from it. They’ll rescue innocent civilians, they’ll hold off the attack until others are out harm’s way, they’ll grab an item needed later from the clutches of destruction. Those henchmen who accompanied the mastermind are going to make an appearance and the PCs are going to kick their collective asses and the PCs will learn of a way to defeat the mastermind. At the end of the first act all of that despair, all of that dread, all of that fear that inevitable doom was coming should be replaced by one idea in the PCs’ minds:
“We can win.”
That is what the first act is all about. You want to intimidate the PCs with the scale of the problem, but you do this for the purpose of having the PCs step up to the problem. The climax comes when the PCs choose to be heroes, and the act ends when the PCs fulfill that choice.
Until Next Time
I hope that you enjoyed this formula for the first act of an epic campaign. In the second part of this series I will discuss the introduction of rivals, letting the bad guys win one, and introducing the twist.
Have you run an epic campaign recently? Do you have any tips to share with the rest of us? If so, leave a comment below and tell the world what it means to be an epic GM!