Best 5 Tips For Running Long Term Epic Campaigns

By way of introduction, my name is John, I’m in my thirties, I live in Germany and I’ve been a thankful reader of this newsletter for quite some time now. I started role-playing at the age of 14, and my preferred system is the Palladium Fantasy Role Playing Game.

As with probably some of you, my typical role-playing session has changed over the years due to work, family and increased geographical distance to my group members. Therefore, we have adapted to more event-like sessions once or twice a year where we agree on a gaming weekend several months in advance. I tell you this because some of the tips described hereafter reflect this style and the fact that I have lots of preparation and thinking time.

First, I’d like to explain my understanding of what an epic campaign is. I’m sure many of you have experienced that kind of game mastering approach where the group has to reach a certain goal to prevent the entire world from going down every session (which also poses a comfortable means for the GM to motivate the group to follow his adventure idea).

Even worse, they are given an epic task too difficult for their experience level to complete, and in the end the “gods” or some other higher entity has to save them and finally solve the quest.

That’s not the kind of epic I am talking about. It is more that the goal has a deeper personal meaning for every PC involved, as well as substantial effects on the game world they are playing in.

Another aspect is a certain long-term perspective in which several quests form a greater story arc that slowly unfolds with every new adventure completed.

Yes, you need good gaming atmosphere, heroic music, props, an epic game setting and a dynamic campaign world (political, cultural, social change). But these aspects have already been covered before. The following are some tips that, in my opinion, take a more psychological approach to make the campaign feel more epic and predestined.

1. Interlink Their Background Stories

Because we plan our sessions long in advance, I have players send me an electronic version of the player character they intend to use via email about a month before our session starts. Compelling background stories receive bonus experience points.

Once I receive the PCs, I start to think of ways how these background stories could possibly be interlinked. Sometimes I ask the players for further relevant details to complete these links, or I have some or all of them run mini-solo- adventures per play-by-mail before we actually meet.

This has given some spice to most of our campaigns when these unknown interlinks slowly unfold during the campaign, and players realize that fate has brought them together to complete the task ahead.

Just recently I had a player actually turn pale as he realized his character had caused the assassination of another character’s brother, and the other player, still unaware of this, is on a quest to avenge the brother’s death. Well GM, lean back and enjoy!

Some more examples:

Politics: One of the characters is a traitor from the Western Empire who fled with important military intelligence in his backpack. Another PC is a Western Empire spy sent out to prevent a traitor from handing over secret military information to the enemy and the spy has to find out who the traitor is.

Family: Two characters are actually brothers who have been separated at birth. Alternatively, one PC is the father of another (works great with long-lived races such as elves or dwarves, but it may be a bit awkward for the players).

Revenge: Two or more PCs are on a quest to take revenge on the same villain without knowing it.

Loot: All PCs have a secret motivation to retrieve a certain item from a treasure vault (e.g., commanded by a deity to destroy it, needed to save a beloved one, lust for power). Who will get it in the end?

Occupation: One PC is secretly a witch, another is secretly a witch hunter. Who discovers the other’s occupation first and how will the PC react? Are the adventures passed together stronger than their sworn mission?

Shape changers: I once had two players separately approach me in secret and tell me they wanted to play a changeling in disguise. Changeling is a race that, due to public hysteria, is usually killed on sight due to the common understanding they kill the persons they impersonate. I then thought it would be funny to also talk the two remaining players into secretly playing a changeling. So I had four players trying to hide the fact they are a changeling from each other.

[Off-record. You have to have a good poker face for that. I remember one conversation when they passed by a bar in a town (Changelings have no tolerance for alcohol):

GM: There is a nice little bar in front of you.

Player 1: Well folks, I think we should not go in and rather go to bed early.

Player 2: I agree, the place looks too expensive anyways.

Player 3: Right, I have some errands to run and no time to go to a bar.

Player 4: Yeah, I wanted to practice my cooking skill anyways.]
And now my all-time favorite: The Backwards Adventure. In this scenario, I started the campaign with the PCs all waking up on a river bank, dressed in nothing more than a linen shirt and complete loss of memory.

In reality, I had the players start with a blank sheet of paper and they had to rediscover their entire PC by role- playing (e.g., lift rocks to find out how strong they are, try out skills if they have any proficiency in them, talk to NPCs if they have met before, etc.). So, the only one who actually knew their background was me.

After several quests they found out they had been under the effect of an item called “Mind Wipe Mirror,” and upon destroying it they regained their full memories. So I handed each of them a sheet of paper with their individual background story.

Just imagine the tension around the table when they discovered they were all sworn arch-enemies before they fell under the spell.

The scene at the gaming table was the following: They silently read their background. Halfway through they start to peek at the players next to them. They all silently put the sheet down. And almost simultaneously they grabbed for their dice, shouted “Initiative!” and battled each other for almost two hours real time until the last man was standing.

So, with all the pranks I play to my players, you can imagine I’m pretty good by now at dodging dice and pencils thrown at me. But I ask them for feedback regularly and they seem to enjoy it a lot.

2. The “Squirrel Tactic” or “Hide Nuts for Later Use”!

It can be quite helpful if you place random items (magic or not) for which you have not yet developed a purpose in your running campaign.

For example, in one quest they subdue a demon and find a small wooden stick in its treasure hoard that registers as magic. Nobody knows what it is and no alchemist can identify it or wants to buy it. Due to the fact that it is magic, they usually carry this item along for the next couple of quests.

When you as GM finally have an idea what this item could be (such as the key to a long forgotten treasure vault or the cross piece of a magic wooden sword) the fact that they found it so early on in the campaign will lead to the impression that all that has happened followed a greater plan the whole time.

3.The Ever-Recurring Item

This is a variation of the Squirrel Tactic I have kept going for almost seven years now. In one of the first adventures of my current group, I placed a small clay statue of a screaming humanoid that seems to be indestructible in an ancient temple they explored.

Unfortunately, the whole group of PCs got killed some sessions after they found it. In another adventure with the same player group but different PCs, I had them stumble over the same statue again. Over the last years of playing, this has developed into some sort of a running gag, as sooner or later one of the current player characters stumbles across “Besescaba’s Final Scream” as they have decided to name it. Also they have put the little thing to various uses throughout the campaigns, such as to block traps with it, break crests, lock in a giant and many more.

I haven’t quite decided on a way to finally use it yet, but the fact alone they have known the artifact for such a long time will make the adventure special when they finally discover its purpose. I know, that’d better be spectacular, such as to resurrect all PCs that ever possessed it and send them on a glorious final mission or the like. Suggestions welcome.

4.The (Almost) Never-Ending Story

Continuously extrapolate the story. For example, have the PCs find a golden scepter in one adventure. In the next they discover this is the handle of an ancient battle axe that has been lost long ago. Have them search for the other pieces.

Then they find out this battle axe is one of five weapons that were forged by greater power to achieve_______. And if the weapons should ever be united again _______ happens. And so on.

This has to come to an end some day. But by that time it looks as if the entire campaign has followed a grater purpose all along.

Another variation is to combine the quests of different player groups to one greater epic campaign. This idea was born when I sat together with a friend who is also a game master in another group. We decided to have our groups run several adventures to retrieve two ancient artifacts on which we agreed.

On a predetermined weekend the other GM – without a word of explanation – got up from his chair when his group had gathered and asked them to follow him out of the house and into his car. He then drove over to my place where my (also unsuspecting) group was waiting.

We had the two groups play the final adventure of our campaigns together, as each group possessed one of the necessary artifacts to complete the quest. It was a priceless moment when the PCs got to know each other, because the players did not know each other before either.

5. Use Former PCs As NPCs

I am a big fan of developing campaign worlds. Therefore, every new adventure chronologically takes place after the last one. So the campaign world we play in has constantly developed in the last 17 years.

A great way to get the players personally involved in the story is to have them encounter their earlier selves in the form of former PCs who have grown old and settled down, as ghosts, visions, etc. The now NPCs then could ask them to complete the quests they themselves have not succeeded at (or hand over a small clay statue of a screaming humanoid that they feel should be passed on to the next PC crossing their path).