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How To Have An Epic Campaign In Three Acts (Part 2 of 3)

Posted By Patrick Benson On April 27, 2011 @ 12:00 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

In the first part of this three part series I focused on understanding what “epic” means to your group, deciding upon the scope of the campaign, and building up a sense of dread for the PCs before revealing a glimmer of hope. In this part I’m going to focus on creating a rivalry between the PCs and their supposed allies, unleashing the villains full force, and throwing in a twist to launch the campaign into its climax.

But first I’m going to backtrack a bit and add one more piece of prep work for your epic campaign.

Your Players Need To Care

Gnome Stew reader recursive.faults made a great point in the comments section of my previous article about how he would add a prologue to establish why the PCs care about the situation to begin with. This is something that I did not write about, but probably should have. For this reason I suggest asking each player to answer three questions from their character’s point of view:

  • Who or what would you risk your life for?
  • Who or what gives your life meaning?
  • Who or what would you oppose even if it meant death?

These questions can be answered with subjective values like “I would risk my life for freedom.”, “My life has meaning because I am a free citizen.”, and “I would oppose tyranny at every turn.” These questions can also be answered with specifics like “I would risk my life for my family.”, “My wife and kids give my life meaning.”, and “Anyone trying to harm my loved ones I would oppose.”

Take the answers from your players and devise your epic campaign’s threat with that input. From the above we can have a threat of alien invaders that are going to enslave all of humanity including those people closest to the PCs. The first wave of destruction might be the aliens attempting to enslave the PCs’ home town. The glimmer of hope might be the PCs believing that all was lost until they discover that their loved ones are safe because of what the PCs did.

You don’t have to use all of the input, but make sure to use some input from each player. Every PC is going to have a reason to care about the events unraveling before them.

What about a player who answers “Nothing.” to all three questions? Tell that player why you are asking the questions to begin with, and ask them to give you a reason that their PC would care about the setting. The reasons do not need to be noble ones. “I’d risk my life for money.” is a perfectly valid answer, because you can work that into the game.

If the player still says “Nothing.” then you might have a bigger problem on your hands. At that point I would tell the player that I do not want such a PC in the campaign, but how you handle such a dilemma comes down to your own personal style.

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My… Enemy?

The evil mastermind that you introduced in the first act has probably gained the attention of several groups beyond just the PCs. There are others trying to stop the mastermind in their own ways. The problem is that their ways and the PCs’ ways do not mix. These are the rivals, and they are as much of a threat to the PCs as the mastermind is.

The rivals might be authority figures, or perhaps they are people who are defending their own self-interests at the expense of others. There are plenty of examples of rivals introduced during the second act to wreak havoc for the heroes. The Pegasus from Battlestar Galactica was a classic rival, as are the F.B.I. agents who will not listen to police officer John McClane in Die Hard. I’m using two examples that I hope are immediately recognized by many gamers, but the rival has three key ingredients:

  • They are opposed to the mastermind with just as much resolve as the PCs have.
  • They have enough power and influence to match that of the PCs, and may possibly have even more.
  • Their plan to oppose the mastermind is doomed to fail, and usually if they had just listened to the heroes this failure would have been avoided.

Design you rivals with these concepts in mind and then introduce them to the story as if they were an improvement for the heroes’ situation. Just like a roller coaster the introduction of the rivals starts off as a high point, but then it quickly plummets into a scary mess (which is where the fun comes from). The introduction of the rivals quickly leads to the revelation of the rivals’ plan, and it is at that point that the PCs should realize that things have gone from bad to worse. And if that was not enough, some of the people close to the PCs have begun to side with the rivals.

The Mastermind’s Return, The PCs’ First Sting Of Defeat

Now guess what happens once the rivals put their plan into action? If you answered “All Hell breaks loose.” you are correct.

That fatal flaw in the rivals’ plan is exploited by the mastermind. The mastermind does not just defeat the plan, but smacks back so hard that the setting fundamentally changes into a pro-mastermind one. That glimmer of hope has been overshadowed by the oncoming doom again, and your job as a GM is to make this moment personal. I have three words for you:

Kill the kitten.

The “kitten” is not a creature but a symbol. The kitten is that precious thing that needs a hero to defend it. The kitten represents how good life was before the mastermind showed up. The kitten is the PCs’ pet even if it is just an idea.

Go back to that list of everything that your PCs care about. Choose something from that list and destroy it. Kill an NPC, blow up the PCs’ stronghold, wreck the PCs’ ship, overthrow their government, gut their faith, and do it through the mastermind.

It is at the end act two when the heroes should suffer a loss. This is not to punish the heroes, but it is needed to elevate the heroes to the level that they need to be at in order to defeat the mastermind. This loss is the catalyst event that changes the PCs forever. Break them so that they may be forged again from the shattered remains stronger than before.

Perhaps the PCs can prevent this event from taking place, but it is going to take all of their resources in order to do so. And they are going to need those resources, because soon the rules of the game will change once more.

A Twist Of Fate, For Fate Is Twisted

The PCs should be in quite a pickle at this point. Do not provide them with the way out of it. The players will need to figure that out for themselves. You need only to provide the unexpected twist that the PCs might be able to use to their advantage.

If there were PC sympathizers amongst the rivals they make their presence known now. If there was a foreshadowed event such as a volcano erupting, or a mine collapsing, that event takes place now. This is the moment where the mastermind is caught off-guard, and perhaps the PCs too.

This is the trickiest of moments for you as the GM. Your campaign can tumble at this point. A total party kill is possible, because the threat of the mastermind and the plot twist are both present. One wrong move and the game may literally be over.

There is only one thing that you can do at this point, and that is to trust your players. Let them play it out and enjoy the ride. Unlike a novel or a movie you cannot dictate that the heroes will win. What you can do is be open to the situation and let the players choose the PCs’ fate.

Onto Act Three…

If the PCs survive act two, and most of the time they will, then you need to give the PCs a chance to regroup and for the players to discuss the game so far. Take this time to review the campaign and to look for people, places, and items from the first two acts that you can bring into the third act. You are almost done with your epic campaign, and if you have done your job well you will have no problem heading into the finale.

And what is the finale all about? The gathering of the major players, the truth being revealed, the last stand, and the big bang. But those will just have to wait until the next article.

What do you think about this formula for act two? Do you agree with it? What would you do differently? Share your ideas with the rest of us by leaving a comment below.

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?




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "How To Have An Epic Campaign In Three Acts (Part 2 of 3)"

#1 Comment By EgoPoisoning On April 27, 2011 @ 5:30 am

I am enjoying this series tremendously! I’m tempted to combine it with the 5×5 method to try and craft an entirely “procedural” campaign, where I follow the format without writing too far ahead. That would let me avoid investing myself too fully in the game’s plot, and thus being better suited to the wrenches players invariably fling at its poor defenseless head.

-Very- interested in how you handle player review, so I’m looking forward to the conclusion of the series!

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On April 27, 2011 @ 10:55 am

I recently confronted my Delta Green players with a group of “bad guys” who were the mirror of their own group: a dedicated band of close-knit associates who were homicidally inclined to their enemies.

The twist? This NPC group identified themselves with the same ideals as the players and had picked out the players as The Enemy in the same way the players had picked out the NPCs. Both groups were clandestine groups of vigilantes dedicated to protecting Life, Freedom and the American Way at any cost. Both groups were (subjectively) “good” guys – a stranger recruited into either would not be able to tell them apart.

The gobsmack this delivered to each and every one of the players was a thing of beauty.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On April 27, 2011 @ 11:01 am

If you’ve set up the campaign as “Death Wish” it should go as you say. You shouldn’t shift into “Game of Thrones” halfway through such a campaign.

Most RPGs being played today are probably action-adventure oriented, I reckon. What better way to let off steam at the weekend than blowing things up and shooting people? It is also a fairly easy way to bolt together a framework for a campaign in which people can intuit what they should be doing, which means less “cat herding” work for the GM in-game.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 27, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

@EgoPoisoning – I would be very interested in hearing how combining this formula with the 5×5 method works for you. Please keep me informed.

@Roxysteve – “If you’ve set up the campaign as “Death Wish” it should go as you say. You shouldn’t shift into “Game of Thrones” halfway through such a campaign.”

I don’t understand what you are saying here in relation to the article.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On April 27, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

@Patrick Benson – Your plot as described is standard Hollywood Action/Adventure – i.e. “Death Wish”.

I was pointing out that you can’t really switch gears into a politics-driven plot (i.e. “Game of Thrones”) halfway through (or vice-versa of course) without stripping the gears. Once you commit to the one style of the other you need to stick to the script.

The “Death Wish” morph into “Game of Thrones” is more popularly known by players as a “bait and switch”, and is unpopular because most RPGs require the players to tune their characters for a quite narrow “mission profile”. In some game systems, to generalize is to die early, either by the bandit’s sword or the vice-chancellor’s poison-ring.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 27, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

@Roxysteve – Thank you for clarifying that. I don’t consider Game of Thrones to be an epic. It is a political drama IMO. So your comment struck me as odd, because I wouldn’t change midstream from an epic campaign to a non-epic one. Especially when the goal of the campaign was for it to be epic.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On April 28, 2011 @ 8:47 am

@Patrick Benson – You don’t define a sweeping tale of the struggle of dozens of people to wrest power over an entire kingdom by political sleight of hand epic?

We must agree to differ then.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 28, 2011 @ 11:31 am

@Roxysteve – And differ we shall, because Game of Thrones is all about the people and their relationships. You can use that formula for kingdoms, corporations, families, and even a tale of high school students trying to win the vote for prom queen.

Star Wars on the other hand, well you gotta’ blow up the Death Star regardless of the Skywalker’s dysfunctional family issues. There are forces completely independent of the personal relationships in that film that are just as important. With Game of Thrones these sorts of things really take a back seat to the personal relationships.

One last thing – Game of Thrones has way too many shades of grey to be an epic in the classical sense IMO. Clear cut good guys versus bad guys are essential to having a great epic.

#9 Pingback By Spes Magna Games » Lots of RPG Links On May 15, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

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