I am closing in on the 3rd anniversary of my Iron Heroes campaign, called The Throne Of The Demon King . In the nearly 3 years i have been running this game, I have learned a lot of GMing lessons. The campaign is set to wrap up just after hitting the 3 year mark, so as a way to celebrate the end of my campaign, I am going to share some of those lessons that learned with you.
The first lesson is about Setting up an Epic Campaign.
Lets be clear when I talk about the word “Epic”. I am not talking about a D&D 3.5 campaign where the characters are at level 20+. I am also not talking about running a 4e campaign in the Epic tier. What I am talking about is a campaign story and style that is on the scale of Lord Of The Rings, Dragonlance, or any number of other fantasy novels. I am talking about a campaign style, where the fate of the world rests on the PC’s shoulders, from the start of the campaign. A style that does not worry about the fate of one town, but of nations. It does not focus on the heroes building a castle with their adventuring loot, but rather raising a vast army and liberating a nation or saving a world.
The epic game is centered around a pivotal goal, that is usually defined in the opening of the campaign. This goal is not small in scale; it can be to save humanity, the world, etc. There is often a conflict that surrounds this goal, in the form of opposition, with one side hoping to complete the goal, and the other working to thwart the first groups efforts. This goal and it’s conflict forms the backbone of the campaign, and all the other parts of the campaign are focused on, or support this pivotal goal. Because the stakes are so high, the entire world is caught up in the goal, and the great powers, be it Kings, or gods, are also drawn into (or often the cause) of the conflict centered around the goal. Finally, the completion of this goal, often signals an end of the campaign, regardless of who wins.
Now that we are on the same page lets talk about what it takes to get a game like this off the ground.
Setting and System
The first thing you need to do is to figure out what kind of game do you want to run, and will the system and the setting support an epic style of play. For a game like Dungeons & Dragons, an epic style game is going to work fine. The game supports a wide range of power levels, and many of the settings are suited to epic style play. Fantasy is not the only setting that this style will work with. Sci-Fi suits the epic style as well. An intergalactic war against an alien horde can be a great epic setting, so a game like Traveler would work fine for an epic style campaign.
A super hero game can also be run in the epic style. When you do that, your game will be more like The Secret Wars, or The Secret Invasion, than something like Daredevil. A setting that I think, may strain under an epic style would be espionage. While most James Bond books and movies are pretty epic in scale, a group of players playing out missions of that scale each week, may be somewhat unrealistic, over time. (If I am wrong about that, tell me in the comments).
When I selected Iron Heroes to be the system for my epic style campaign, it was on somewhat of a lark. I had just tanked a Mutants & Masterminds campaign, and was looking to run something different. I had just purchased the game at GenCon, and I really liked the IH rules set. In truth, I could have easily run the game on a much smaller scale, but some of the text in GMing section game had caught my attention, and my mind had drifted towards the epic scale, as I did my initial brainstorming. I wish I could have said that I picked IH specifically for epic scale, but truth be told, the idea was far less deliberate.
After I had decided on an epic style campaign, I made sure that IH could mechanically support something of that scope. Since the rules were d20 based, I knew, like D&D, that mechanically it could run into the high levels, and that I would have material from other d20 publications, to support the campaign as time went on.
Epic? Are You Sure?
After coming up with the idea to run epic style and finding a system that would support it, the next question you need to ask, before you go any further is: Do I have the focus and commitment to run, and more importantly finish this style of campaign? A game of this scale is a lot of work, and not every GM has the drive, the focus, and dedication to run a game of this scale, over a long period of time. That is not a dig on anyone’s skills as a GM, but rather a reflection of different GM’s skills and styles. A game of this size requires a large imagination to come up with the epic scale of story. It will need to be well paced so that the campaign does not end in six weeks, requiring the GM to stay focused on the campaign, and deliver quality story for months, or even years. Then there are going to be bumps in the road: player-player conflicts, players leaving, the trappings of real life, that will occur during those months or years, and it will take dedication to shepherd the game to the final session.
Taking on an epic campaign means that you have to deliver the final session, the one that the whole campaign has been building up towards, for the game to have a sense of completion. For lack of better words, you have to keep writing and running until, Frodo brings the ring to Mount Doom. In the epic style campaign, the big payoff is in the conclusion of the epic event. Other accomplishments during the campaign are going to be meaningful, but will be smaller in comparison to the epic event that is framing your campaign, and in order for the campaign to be a success, you have to get your group to that final event. It wont be easy, so before you make this kind of commitment to your players, make sure that you are up to this task.
In my campaign, the players are on a collision course with a confrontation with the Demon King. Everything else that has happened in the game, has been building up to this confrontation. In order to complete this campaign, successfully, this confrontation has to occur. With 26+ years of GMing, there have been numerous times during the campaign, where I thought I was burnt out or used up. There were three serious player-player conflicts that have had to be negotiated, that could have collapsed the campaign. It took a lot of dedication, and faith in the game and my players, to keep on writing, even when I was not into the game, or not sure that we would make it to the final confrontation.
Not every GM is cut out to run this kind of campaign. If you don’t think you are, its ok not to run something like this. There are plenty of other types of campaigns to run that are as enjoyable as this. If you don’t think you are ready to run something of this scale, but aspire to it, then the best thing you can do is to keep honing your GMing skills, and look for that system or campaign setting that catches your eye and inspires you. Trust your instincts, and you will know when you are ready.
Epic. What do you guys think?
Now that you have convinced yourself that you can do this, the next thing you need to consider is: Do I have the players who will want to play in this kind of campaign? If your gaming group is mostly casual gamers, then this is not the campaign style for you. If your players are more into item acquisition and wealth collection, this may not work for you either. If you have a group that fights among themselves, or have problems showing up to every game, then this may not be the campaign style for you. To run a game of this scale and scope, you need the dedication of your players to your vision. In order to that, you are going to have to get their buy-in.
Take the time to establish your own social contract for the scope and vision for your campaign. Make sure that the players understand what is expected of their characters, and what is expected of them. Let them know what types of sessions (dungeon crawls, court intrigue, mass combat) you expect to run during the campaign. Discuss what character details will be important, and what details will not play a role in the campaign. Work together to come up with a shared vision. Compromise with the players on aspects of the campaign setting, and have them help you fill in other parts. A game of this scale will only work with complete player buy-in, so through your social contract, create that player investment in the game, and that will be the foundation that you will build your epic upon.
When I was setting up this game, with my players, we established a social contract, that made clear that our game would be a heroic style game (no evil characters), that was epic is scale (meaning that we would skip things like how much trail rations everyone had), and that the stake of the game would be the campaign world (meaning that there were no side quests, every session would be critical to the overall success of the players), and that the players would be iconic (no small rolls, everyone played a pivotal role in the campaign world).
It took a lot of discussion to unite the three players and myself under one vision of the game. That shared vision has helped us keep the campaign on track, as well as to keep the players focused. It was a critical component to the success of my campaign, and worth the effort in the beginning to create the contract.
Once you have player buy-in you can get started on your campaign prep, character generation, and all the other activities that are required to get your game off the ground. But that is a story for another day…
The epic style campaign is not for every GM or every group. If you decide to go down this path, you must prepare yourself for a lot of work, for some heartache, and a good deal of angst. You will need a dedicated group of players and a game setting and system that can play out the epic story. When done properly the epic campaign takes on a life of its own, and becomes a driving force, pulling your players, and yourself along for a campaign that you will speak about for years to come.