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Lessons From The Long Campaign: Setting Up An Epic Campaign

I am closing in on the 3rd anniversary of my Iron Heroes campaign, called The Throne Of The Demon King [1].  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…

Lesson Learned

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.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Lessons From The Long Campaign: Setting Up An Epic Campaign"

#1 Comment By brcarl On September 10, 2008 @ 8:35 am

Great article, Phil. I wish I would have read this a little over a year ago when I embarked on an epic campaign. It would have saved me some heartache.

That campaign is currently on hiatus while another DM in the group finishes up his epic campaign. Even if the group does make it back around to me in the DM chair, having nodded my head at so many things you wrote, I think I’ll push for a more episodic campaign. My energy/creativity is too low, sessions are too infrequent, not all of the players consistently show up, there’s no interest in between-session work to keep the story and characters alive and fresh… too many things working against a cohesive, long-term “epic campaign.”

So how do you take an epic campaign and scale it back to episodic? Should you let the players keep their PCs, or let them swap out if they want? Should you try to finish off the prior plot so sate their curiosity, or just hand-wave it and move to the new stuff? Hmm…

One thing I know I would do is try to sprinkle in some of the more noteworthy places and NPCs from the aborted campaign. I’ve done that once already; I loved everyone’s reaction when they realized that the elven archer they were competing against in the city fair contest was an old PC that I ran when someone else was DMing. (I made sure he didn’t win. ;-))

#2 Comment By LesInk On September 10, 2008 @ 9:07 am

I want to point out a couple items.

First, a break from time to time is usually needed by the GM for epic campaigns. This is normal. Usually, when I’ve got one of these running, I have a problem where I’ve run out of “day to day” scenes, but still have this huge overarching plot line going. Getting the overarching theme to jive with the smaller elements sometimes requires a bit of recharging of the creativity juices.

With that said, don’t take large breaks if you can because getting the players back into the same mindset can be hard — sometimes to the point of losing players, changing minds, or just a general inability to get back into the swing of it.

Second, when doing an epic campaign, the characters are usually far more integrated into the story. Loss of a character (or corresponding player) can be a massive blow to the story and cause the GM to have to spend considerable time (and sessions) seeking alternative events and resolving consequences. If Frodo died would Sam have taken the ring onward? If Sam died, would Frodo have made it to Mount Doom solo? You get the picture. Unexpected outcomes can lead to a different story that may require extreme acts of energy and creativity to handle. And with the nature of RPG games (player involvement) — something always goes unplanned — probably once per gaming session.

@DNAPHIL: I’m actually a bit envious of your players. Having 3 strong dedicated players is not to be taken lightly. Right now I have a group of 7 players with a variety of levels of dedication. On some nights, I feel like I’m herding cats and having a hard time keeping every player fully involved. This makes me wonder if there is limit on the number of player characters in a good epic.

#3 Comment By Karizma On September 10, 2008 @ 11:33 am

What about players and rules? Should all the players be thoroughly introduced to the rules or should the players just stumble along until they figure them out? This especially pertains to house rules. I’m working on rewriting magic for my campaign world (I hope to do an epic-style campaign one day, but I’m currently in a state where a stable group isn’t feasible), but should I teach the players the rules with a group of pre-epic game sessions, or should I just jump straight into it without giving the players any experience with the new rules?

#4 Comment By John On September 10, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

I know I’m going to sound like “that guy,” but having recently brought a 5+ year campaign to a close with 2 separate Epic arcs in it, for once I can actually offer non-pulled-out-of-my-ahem advice. 😉

@BRCARL – I think epic campaigns need to have less-than-epic plot points to them. Yes, they’re going to save the world in the end, but clearly that’s not a 1st level character’s job. Have things that are important to the story but not as dangerous. Assembling implements required for a ritual gives you multiple MacGuffins to drive adventures. Likewise, the location of XYZ thing/person/information may only be known by so-and-so, who needs to be rescued / needs to have a favor done / needs to be tortured into doing whatever.

Small, bite-sized adventures can still feed the epic storyline, while giving tangible rewards and a more manageable scope for the players to get their arms around. I’d definitely keep the same characters. If the Big Bad was time-sensitive in some way, come up with a reason why it’s delayed. “So and so omen/portent was mis-interpreted” or “He’s been defeated! YAY! Rejoice” only to be followed, six months later, with “OH NOES he survived!!”

@KARIZMA – I think you’ve got a personal taste issue there, but speaking for myself I’d definitely teach the rules during the epic game. Nothing helps simulate the know-nothing-farm-folk-who-grow-up-to-save-the-world better than players who are learning as much as their characters are. On the flip side, I’d definitely “play with the safeties on” and go a little easy on the hostilities while they get their feet under them.

~ John

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 10, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

Very cool.

I’m envious of the GMs who have the circumstances and intestinal fortitude to properly execute this type of epic campaign. I’d love to do so, but family commitments pretty much guarantee that I’ll run low-prep, episodic stuff from here out (well, at least until the kids start college).

I’ve found that a “meandering” campaign can stumble onto an epic-style climax, as well. No, those early “clearing the bandits” missions weren’t directly related to the BBEG, but they were necessary to cut your teeth, as it were.

Questions: How much did you “railroad” the players? Was it necessary in hindsight? Did the buy-in help out? Did you give them free reign to come up with solutions to the problems, or did you already have the solutions pre-figured?

#6 Comment By DNAphil On September 11, 2008 @ 6:15 am

Hello all…time to comment on all of your comments.

So how do you take an epic campaign and scale it back to episodic?

This one I think is tough. In order to do it you need to close out the epic event. So either you can Fast Forward to the event and let the players play out the event, or you can engage in some kind of narriative play, where you collaborate with the players (outside of the normal mechanics of the game) to resolve the event. In either case, after you close the epic event, you can then move to a more episodic play style.

I have been very lucky to have the players I have had. Two of the three, have been in our playing group for 10+ years, so I knew they were rock solid. The other was a newcomer (>5 years) in the group, but I knew this would be his type of game.

Without sugar coating it, there was a lot of work on my part, on the back-end, between sessions, to keep players engage, diffuse arguments, etc. That is the hardest part of the epic game, because you have to keep the players together, because they are so integrated into the storyline (as you said).

As for knowledge of the rules, when we started Iron Heroes, I was the only one who had read the full rules. The rest of the group were proficient in d20, but no one else knew Iron Heroes. We started the party at 5th level, and we grew into the system. I did very little house rules, but that is me in general. I did make it a point, each year to re-read the rulebook to see what things we were doing wrong, etc.

I tip my hat to you on the completion of your Epic^2 campaign.

How much did you “railroad” the players?

I was very careful about this, because railroading is a sensitive issue for me. I will talk about this in a future article, but what I did was lay out a few major goals for the players: finding some needed artifacts, finding a “home base”, making allies, etc, as thing that the heroes would need to accomplish to be able to confront the Demon King. Then I let the players decide the order of what they wanted to accomplished, and often would let them tell me how they wanted to accomplish it. From that info, I would then construct the story arcs and run them.

If I did it properly, and I think I did, my players would tell you that I did not railroad the game, and that they drove a good part of how the game evolved.

As for family commitments and the epic game. In the course of this game we have weathered:

–The birth of both of my kids
–The birth of one of my players children
–One of my players getting married
–Several career changes among the players

So it can be done. Its not easy, but it can be done. The trick was that when we needed to we took a few weeks off from the game, and kept the game alive by email discussions.

Thanks for the comments, and I am glad you enjoyed the article.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On September 11, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

I envy you your game (it sounds like it was great), but I’m finding that short run games are hitting the spot pretty well at the moment. I suspect that’s a side effect of having so many interests– I can’t imagine dedicating all that time to one system when there are so many pretty/shiny ones that demand my attention.

#8 Comment By DNAphil On September 12, 2008 @ 5:54 am


You bring up a great point. Before I started this campaign, I was playing campaigns that went a year or less, allowing me to try a fair number of games. One of the hardest parts of running the Long Campaign, was that I had to shelve a number of other games. I have a short stack of games that I am dying to run, as this campaign concludes.

It has taken a great deal of willpower to stay committed to this campaign, and not switch to some of the other games that keep haunting me. I am talking to you Burning Empires!

#9 Pingback By Dungeoncraft – in medias res: The Elevator Pitch « allgeektout On April 25, 2009 @ 5:09 am

[…] version of epic levels are, I mean the kind of “epic” that DNAPhil of Gnome Stew used in his series on long campaigns: What I am talking about is a campaign story and style that is on the scale of Lord Of The Rings, […]