Beyond the Dice: Epic Campaigns

When I first began writing for Rolling Boxcars I had one goal in mind. I wanted to help people to take their roleplaying to another level. I wanted to show people that there are ways to go beyond the physical trappings of the games we play and to take things into levels of intensity and drama that most don’t realize they can experience at the table.

Lately, I feel like I’ve been getting away from that original goal. So, I’ve decided to get back to what I feel most passionate about! And with this month’s edition, I want to take it back to the beginning with this article that I’d originally planned as a follow up to my very first article on this site! This article works hand in hand with Beyond the Dice: Epic Scenarios, so you may want to take a quick look at that article first before diving in here! Now, let’s get to it!

Do you have an old character that you’re always telling stories about? Like, you’ve got so many stories that people may start to wonder if you’re making stuff up? When you tell the stories do you refer to your character as “me”? Do you refer to the other players in that game by their character’s name instead of their real names? Do you remember how the other character’s looked even when the person playing them wasn’t anything like them? If you answered yes to all of these, congratulations, you were probably in an Epic Campaign! And if you would like to be the person who orchestrates, develops, and creates the means for someone to experience such a campaign, keep reading, it’s time to tell you my greatest secrets!

The Real Threat

The best villains don’t tell you who they are, they aren’t revealed until later! Think about it! It’s the Scooby Doo trick! Don’t let your players know who the REAL bad guy is until a lot later, make them work for it! The best bad guys work behind the scenes, manipulating others to do their dirty work. But think of each bad guy you throw at your game group as pawns of a greater power. It works no matter what game you’re playing! Some games are engineered around this concept!

So, come up with someone who is the ultimate bad guy! Or, come up with an organization that is the definition of EVIL! Make them powerful! Make them ruthless! Make them unstoppable! Make them… with a weakness that your players will find and manipulate to their advantage so that they can win the day and save the world…

What? The game is supposed to be fun after all! And, as a player, that sounds like A LOT of fun!

Think Macro, Not Micro

In your game world, what’s happening on the other side of town? On the other side of the country? On the other side of the continent? On the other side of the world?

As Game Masters / Storytellers / Dungeon Masters, we often focus on our game group and orchestrate everything for them. But let me put forth a radical theory… maybe, it’s not all about them? What if this imaginary world was just like our own? An alternate world? An alternate reality perhaps? What if, just like here in our world, there were other people out there with different goals, different desires, and different needs? What if they were like pieces on a chessboard, only constantly in motion and all of them trying to accomplish the winning move?

You don’t have to plan every detail of what’s happening everywhere, but having a good idea, a direction for what’s happening in the world on the grand scale can have impacts for your game group on the smaller scale. If you’ve planned for a war to break out, and the players have decided to visit a border town instead of that pre-packaged adventure you wanted to put them through, things could get a little crazy! And that’s what I’m talking about! By planning out the larger movements in a game world, you can inadvertently impact or change what’s happening with the game group you’re running! This means that the game takes on another dimension to the players! They’re no longer simply running through an adventure, they’re living in a real-world that is changing unexpectedly!

This also gives them freedom from plot hammering. You don’t have to force them to go in a direction, because you can change direction easily since you already know what’s going on in that part of the world! Throwing some improv into the game becomes easy once you have a little experience running things. And it ensures that you are always moving the plot forward! Your game group missed some clues? Missed some important events? Got stuck in a dungeon for a month? Guess what? The world moved on, things continued to happen, reality didn’t revolve around your game group. That’s another step in making things MORE REAL.

Destroy Everything

One of the things I could never understand about most games that I’ve been a player in is, how in the world is there not more stuff getting destroyed? I mean, let’s take magic for an example. When one person can wield that much power, wouldn’t you think that they’re basically a walking battering ram? What happens when one goes rogue? And, even if magic doesn’t exist in your game, there’s still a lot of potential for destruction out there! So, what happens when the bad guy decides to use that potential destruction and holds the city hostage? What if the bad guy decides to punish the good guys by wrecking things? Destroy buildings! Destroy churches! Destroy bridges! Destroy on a wide scale and make your player’s eyes go wide!

And when you’re bored with destroying things, start destroying institutions, morals, ethics, traditions, and values! Seriously! Just like in real life, things are changing constantly in your game world! Did you know that in medieval times, the color pink was for men and was associated with masculinity? We’re talking 500 years ago! How many new words have been invented in just the past couple of years with celebrities making things up and the internet slapping a label on something? I mean, every time science has a breakthrough or discovers something, you get a new word! Or what about words that have fallen out of use, it can’t all be stultiloquence you know!

Use this in your game! Have the government agency your players are working for suddenly get dissolved! Have the local Wizard’s Guild get disbanded by order of the King! Have the Galactic Trade Federation suddenly get taken over by an outsider who slowly turns it into a drug smuggling and bounty hunter service! …okay, that last one has pretty much happened, but you get the idea!

Hit Them Where It Hurts

Use the collateral damage of innocents to your advantage! Nothing will make your bad guy out to be the epitome of evil more than when they stand over a child and threaten their life! Or an elderly person! And what better way for your good guys to FEEL like the good guys than to have them rescue the innocent? Are they playing a hard case? Then bring in their family! Mother, father, sister, brother, whoever you can use from their character history! Did they not write a character history with NPC’s you can use? Then threaten their cat! Their house plants! Their iPhone or tablet! Their favorite coffee shop! Figure out what matters to them, and then threaten it to up the intensity of the situation!

When you are playing the bad guys, you need to think like a bad guy! What is their motivation? What are they trying to do? Would it really further their goals to simply kill the PC’s or would it be better to manipulate them? Maybe the PC’s hurt the bad guys and they want to hurt them back! Maybe the PC’s are the only ones who can get into a secure facility and the bad guy has kidnapped their Grandma, threatening her life until they get what the bad guy wants! Maybe the bad guy has already killed a pet as a warning to the PC’s to not get in his way? Maybe the bad guy wants to ruin the PC’s by framing them for their crimes?

The point here is, when it comes to creating an Epic Campaign, you’re going to have to put machinations behind machinations and weave it all together into a tapestry that feels REAL to the players! You have to get an idea of the bigger picture and at the same time, you have to keep your NPC’s realistic and striving for their own goals. That’s what is going to make the overall campaign come to life, that’s what is going to make it EPIC.

Happy Gaming!


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