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How To Have An Epic Campaign In Three Acts (Part 1 of 3)

Posted By Patrick Benson On April 20, 2011 @ 12:00 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments

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!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




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7 Comments To "How To Have An Epic Campaign In Three Acts (Part 1 of 3)"

#1 Comment By Gnomentashen On April 20, 2011 @ 11:00 am

This is great, and not just because I read through it thinking, “Hey…I did it right (mostly)!”

I love epic, and the Pathfinder campaign I’ve been running was my return to D&D* after too long a hiatus was intended to be massively epic. I initially told my players, “Your story could be illustrated by Frank Frazetta and your soundtrack would be done by the Sword.”

One thing that I feel is important to point out is that it is important for the *players* to care what happens. If you can get that going, then the scale is significantly less important. Put another way, make sure that the players feel protective of the same thing their PCs feel protective of, and you can raise the threat again and again until they figure out two things: One, they’re boiling. Two: There’s still time to get out, if they work together.

This goes hand in glove with your thoughts about talking to the players about what their expectations are. I actually flat out said to my players, before the first session: Ok. This is going to be big. But in order for us to have fun, I need your help. I promise not to completely screw you over if you just trust me a little and take a chance on something now and again. I want us all to have as much fun as possible, so jump right in.”

The players really took that to heart, and, while they were (of course) all playing characters who were misfits of one type or another, they realized that the stakes were bigger than they were, and they’ve pulled together remarkably well in response. It’s been extremely gratifying as a DM, and it ultimately means that I’m emboldened to put more work and “cool stuff” into the project, because I know the players are sharp, and will pretty much take any “bait” I give them. Of course, they then proceed to interact with the situation I’ve got set up for them in ways I could never have conceived — and that’s where the fun really starts.

Let me put it this way: In the last session, I got to straight-facedly deliver the line: “I am Aiglante, Queen of the Elves of Venus-in-Exile. The lights you saw in your sky last night were ships, the last of my people to leave our now-dead planet. The Sun’s hunger is insatiable, and Earth is next. We seek the safety of the stars, will you join us?”

And the players, watching from safe within their hidden vimana, all yelled at the Humans assembled, “Don’t believe them! Don’t go! Those pointy eared bastards!”

It was awesome — and it worked because I got the players emotionally invested, so that the utterly bizarre facts really didn’t effect their buy-in.

Now I’m looking forwards to Part Two…because that’s where I am, and I’m a bit stumped.

* I know. Really. But I last played when Revised AD&D came out, so it’s all equally familiar & disorienting.

#2 Comment By evil On April 20, 2011 @ 11:23 am

One thing I’ve done in the past, when I’m attempting to create an epic campaign, is to make the PCs a supporting cast to a character that is heroic. In many ways, I make the characters Nick to the epic hero of Gatsby. The PCs don’t spend every minute with the epic hero, but they do spend enough time to know that they’re seriously outclassed, but can also hold their own as a group. As the hero comes back into the picture, each time the PCs come a little closer to his level.

While this doesn’t meet everyone’s views of an epic campaign, it worked well for my players, especially since they had a benchmark to gauge their own skills and not just a bad guy who kept disappearing and reappearing.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 20, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

@Gnomentashen – I completely agree. Emotional ownership in a setting is a powerful thing, and if you can nurture it within your group then you will have a much easier time creating an epic feeling campaign. That is one reason why epic is more difficult to pull off than most other games. You have to provoke an emotional response from your players. Disgust for the villain, sadness at the loss of a friendly NPC, terror that they may lose, and conviction to see the adventure played through to the bitter end. If you can get the players to feel those things your game will always be epic!

@evil – That is an approach that I will have to experiment with. The danger is that it can degrade into a GM’s pet PC, but the potential upside is that the PCs start with a mentor, who becomes a peer, and who finally passes the torch onto the PCs as a sign of their surpassing him or her. Powerful stuff if handled correctly. Thanks for sharing it!

#4 Comment By recursive.faults On April 20, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

I like this article and look forward to the next two! While deep down part of me is saying, “No! It has to be more complex and involved than this,” I can’t deny this is a winning formula for an epic campaign.

I would, personally, add a prologue. The prologue exists to ground the players to the world and make them care.

I was thinking about this and what I kept coming back to is in a lot of games, especially fantasy based ones, PC characters are weird. They’re out of their mind, brimming with uncommon powers, and leave a huge wake of destruction.

Players ground themselves in what they see, which is mostly based around them conquering evil. So I feel, that often times, their buy in is that there is adventure involved with being their nutty selves. However, I think campaigns that could be truly epic are the ones where the characters and players are desperate to stop the villain.

I used the word desperate intentionally. It should have that feel. The best stories have that same desperation driving characters forward.

The huge event that shows the characters how bad it is and that there is still hope is great and critical. Though only after you know the players really care.

Just my thoughts though.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 21, 2011 @ 8:14 am

@recursive.faults – You bring up an excellent point. Your players should care about the setting, your players should have some buy-in with the game world, and your players should have some emotional stakes in what happens to really achieve a grand epic feeling while playing the campaign. I’ll touch on that in the second article, but the earlier it is established the better.

I remember once that I had a player in a Supers campaign that did not really care about his character being a hero. The PC would not try to prevent crimes, and he sometimes would just let his team members get the crap kicked out of them while the character found a bar to drink in (and he would make a point of not paying either).

Big epic game begins. The mastermind screws up time itself, and only the heroes can make things right. This PC starts with “I leave the planet.” which his character was capable of. I said okay and kept running the game.

Two hours later the player asks “When are we going to get to what my character is doing?” I replied “We’re not. I’m tired of running a game for four heroes and a villain. Roll up a new character and get on board with the group or you are out of the game. No negotiations.”

He asked if we could just let his PC back into the game. I said no. I was sick of it. I had been running this game for about two months and he never once made any attempt to work with the group or me in telling a good story. The group had brought this to his attention more than once, and the lamest of excuses was always used – “That is what my character would do.”

It was an odd event. The entire table just sort of agreed that we could not care less about how he felt at this point. Either roll up a new PC or don’t play at all. You could just feel the lack of concern for his desires.

He rolled up a new character, but it was obvious that he was going to leave the group. Was it the right thing to do? Yes, I think that it was. He was a threat to the group in his own way, and he was playing a metagame of “Ruin the game for others.”

But that isn’t the reason that I bring him up. The reason I mention this is because until his character was out of the game the campaign did not feel epic. Once that PC was gone, once only four PCs who cared remained did the game feel right. It just didn’t click until that point.

The campaign wasn’t epic with four heroes deeply invested in the game world, and one non-hero that refused motivation. Part two of this series does touch upon this, but getting the players to care (or to play characters who care) is something that you want to have at the beginning of any game (epic or not). I’ll look into writing up a separate article on that matter.

#6 Comment By baakyocalder On April 21, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

Good article!

I wish more players understood what epic’s literary definition is. I find players struggle when early on, they just can’t win. In an epic, they need to face a foe that will take a great deal of effort to win.

Usually I find this confusion comes from a lack of understanding what a hero is.

The PCs are the protagonists, but heroes act in a certain way. That’s why the ‘not a hero super’ in Patrick Benson’s campaign didn’t work.

Heroes are the people who stare evil in the face and without using evil methods, do not back down. They are emotionally invested in defeating the mastermind and his (or her or its) minions.

I usually don’t start out with that epic of a plan in mind. I find that I overplan if I have too much of an epic in mind and planning only a few sessions ahead and improvising improves my game.

However, I create multiple hooks so that in my worlds, there are multiple masterminds with their own plans. The PCs will become invested in defeating the mastermind whose hooks they bite.

Probably the most epic campaign I ran was a HackMaster campaign from August 2001 to about August 2003. The game started out with simple hooks: join the militia, fight one NPC, or fight another. The world was very developed in my mind and as usual for any of my games, there was a thick handout with history, major NPCs, major nations and maps.

The essential issue of the world was freedom and slavery. The majority of nations in the world were slaver nations, including elven nations. I was heavily influenced by Richard Dunn’s history of the Carribean, ‘Sugar and Slaves.’

The PCs chose to hail from one of the island colonies, or at least start there. They took the fight on one side, but with a twist… a thieves guild hired them to betray their employer. Quickly they realized that the main elven nation, Rakden, was evil.

The leading family of that nation kept sending assassins and spies after them and showed how evil they were.

Later, as new players came in and I dropped the plot bomb, they realized the central problem: they were on a prison planet that was a gateway to many planes. The evil elven family from Rakden had been cut off from a nasty multiplanar evil Elven Empire.

So, things went from personal struggles against one family, to struggles against a nation, to a fight against a multiplanar empire.

Throughout the campaign, the PCs were faced with temptation, for there were few who really wanted to fight the Elven Empire for pure means. They all wanted the PCs to do their dirty work, particularly the Millerite Goblins.

As each new player came in, they learned how their adventuring was disliked almost everywhere. Part of this was they were heroes; a major part of this bad reputation was because they were terrible diplomats.

In the end, the players managed to gain control of some of the levers of power in the Elven Empire. One PC got half the fleet to follow him into the Abyss. Another PC, working with the enemies of the Elven Empire, let them know that the defenses were weak.

In the end, there was a war between the gods and much of the universe was destroyed.

Planar empires fell and whole pantheons were annihilated.

We started later in other games with some of the heroes and new, but none were so epic.

The game worked because the players were invested. It was the best game I GMed, despite many worts.

Right now I’m working on something less universe-spanning, but just as epic in scope: saving the people of the Young Kingdoms in the Kingdoms of Kalamar settings from the grevans and the evil conspirators who would use the grevans to take over the Young Kingdoms.

The HackCooks are about a third through with the first trilogy. After we have another GM rotate in, the PCs will fave a substantial force of grevans in what seems to be an impossible fight. Given the skill of the players, I think they’ll win. The question remains, what will they pay to win?

Heroes sacrifice and that’s why epic stories pull us in–only the greatest heroes can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in them.

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