There is a bit of famous advice from the great Ray Winninger about setting up a campaign milieu; to wit, never force yourself to create more than you need to. The question then naturally, what do I need to create?
I am going to suggest that, very early on – perhaps so early that not a single PC foot has trod the dirt of your masterpiece – you consider what might become a proper, epic, finale to an adventurer’s career. You want to be able to drop hints about these possibilities early on. Perhaps as early as the first session.
Please note that I am not saying that you should craft your adventures to be “about” some particular epic endgame. Nor am I saying that you should choose the final goals for the Player Characters soon to be entrusted to your tender care. Nor, finally, am I saying that the campaign milieu ceases to be used after such an epic endgame is concluded. I am not advocating an “adventure path” type design.
First off, you shouldn’t be thinking about a single epic endgame. You should consider at least 3 possible endgames, and perhaps up to 10 of more. A single epic endgame forces the players along the path you set for them. Multiple potential endgames allow the players to choose what interests them. They then get to set their own path.
Possible epic endgames include (but are not limited to):
- Legendary Challenge: Become the greatest chessmaster in the world. Beat the Devil in a game of poker. Reach the top of Mount EverestWasEasier.
- Legendary Hoard: Uncover some great hoard of treasure, and get it home.
- Legendary Location: Find Atlantis, the Garden of Eden, or the lowest level of Castle Greyhawk. Then get out to tell the tale.
- Legendary Monster: Defeat a unique, named monster, feared for its power. The original AD&D 1e Tarrasque was a challenge of this kind.
- Artifact: Gain possession and control over some great artifact or relic. Alternatively, destroy the same.
- Great Love: Win the love of some paragon of beauty or virtue, of whom the bards sing, and who is won only at great cost.
- Overcome a God: Pretty self-explanatory. Note that this need not be in combat.
- Overthrow Evil Regime: Also pretty self-explanatory, and may lead directly into….
- Gain a Kingdom: Rip the crown of the bloody head of the previous ruler, whom you strangled on his throne.
- Become Immortal: Always worthwhile, and it’s nice to be a permanent fixture in the campaign milieu.
- Ascend to Godhood: Work things out so that you are a permanent fixture in the cosmology of the game milieu. Later PCs can worship you!
Note that these epic endgames are not mutually exclusive. A character might need to seek out an artifact, within the hoard of a legendary creature, in order to defeat a god, and hence become immortal.
What makes an endgame epic?
When a PC is 1st level, he encounters and slays an orc. When he is 3rd level, he encounters and slays a tougher orc. When he is 10th level, the orc, although now a giant of some sort, is still really nothing more than a bigger orc. When devising an epic endgame, it is imperative that the matter cannot be resolved simply by slaying an epic-level orc.
What you want to do is create a situation where wading into combat simply will not work. The character must seek eldritch lore, deal with demons and/or demigods, field armies, and bend the campaign milieu to his will. Thousands or millions of beings are affected, for good or for ill. Succeed or fail, the campaign milieu will permanently affected by the PC’s quest. It becomes a major point of the world’s history, remembered for many generations to come.
To be truly epic, an endgame must demand that the player character gamble. Way back at 1st level, the PC had scant guarantee of survival, and even less of success. As the character grows, his chances of success grow with him, and his survival becomes far less doubtful. An epic endgame reverses this. Once more, the character must gamble everything, with a good chance of losing. It is this real chance of losing that makes victory taste sweet….and the consequences of loss must be dire.
There must be real and obvious reasons why no one has tried this before….or, if they have (and that is a great campaign backstory!) why they failed.
If the players have a chance to learn about these potential endgames right from the start, they have something epic to compare themselves to. We can liken a person’s strength to “a modern-day Hercules”. The prepared epic endgame allows your PCs and NPCs to refer to someone as “Tougher than the tarrasque itself” in the same sort of exaggerated way.
Imagine the campaign where a great Iron Colossus stands vigil over the city harbor, issuing commands on behalf of its Red Priesthood, and threatening destruction if those commands are not heeded. The PCs are affected by those commands early on in the campaign, and eventually decide to gamble everything in ending the Red Priesthood’s power forever – even if it means finding some way to destroy the Iron Colossus!
The wise GM doesn’t allow the Colossus to be defeated in mere combat, however. The thing is invincible. No, instead, she has the players seek out the home plane of the spirit that animates the great monster, where they must field an army to reach its iron fortress. And then, and only then, can they challenge its Red Priest master to a contest that will wrest control of the Colossus from the Priesthood and into the PCs’ hands. And, if they win, one of their number must remain behind to be the animus of the indestructible thing…..
Increases of power do not make a game epic. Rather, risk must be increased, and the fates of nations or worlds must hang in the balance. Just make sure that, whatever the consequences of failure, you are ready to allow the PCs to fail, and the consequences to occur.
After the epic endgame….
If the world is still there, the players make some new adventurers, and play on. The landscape is changed by the events of the endgame. Old PCs are lords of the realm, or gods, or lost. They have truly affected the campaign milieu. The new PCs are moving in their shadows. And, perhaps, those shadows will suggest some new potential endgames…..
Whether the players immediately realize it or not, really affecting the campaign milieu through the agency of your own choices, taken at risk, and with full acceptance and understanding of the potential consequences, is the best thing about playing these games. And it is one of the things that tabletop games do infinitely better than computer games….because those changes can be persistent.
You owe it to your players to craft those opportunities.
You owe it to yourself to watch them unfold.