Saving the world is a pretty common epic goal, and it’s one that works well in several genres (notably fantasy, supers and some kinds of sci-fi).
But how do you keep a campaign where the PCs regularly save the world fresh and exciting?
Is there a middle ground between zero (we can barely afford bullets) and sixty (we’ve saved the world — next, the universe!) on the epic speedometer?
James Bond seems to have it figured out… heck, so does the crew of the Enterprise. When you’re the best, they keep asking you to come back and fix things… but it’s never that easy.
I suspect the real key to sustaining it is to ramp up the parallel story. So, sure, you’re running around saving the universe… but you’re also missing your anniversary, your kid’s first Christmas play, and the like. You contrast the epic struggle with human relationships… and hope that the players will go along and characterize appropriately.
I’ve had some success by utilizing what I call “the Batman approach”. Some Batman stories are dirty noir crime dramas in Gotham City. The stakes are smallish and the enviroment is relatively limited. Other times Batman is fighting alien invasions or immortal sorcerers or whatever and the action could take place anywhere. Both kinds of stories are fun. In actual practice I’ve applied this theory by alternating big plotlines with solid, traditional dungeon-crawling.
“There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they Do… Not… Know about it!”
– Men In Black
The current high-level D&D game I’m in (17th level) has me fairly disillusioned with high-level D&D. It’s partly the DM’s fault, this is his first time running 3.x and he tends to only throw single monsters at us at a time (and there’s 6-8 of us depending on how many show up), but all the same we tend to trample anything even if it’s 6 or 7 CRs above us.
That’s one of the reasons I’m considering making Mutants & Masterminds my system of choice for future fantasy games I run, I imagine it would scale up with level a lot better.
My expirience with high-level play comes from D&D, but I’ll try to be as general as possible.
When it comes to high-level adventures, “saving the world” is what is all about. Notice how I put that in quotes, however. The world needs “Saving” only because someone else thinks it needs “Fixing”. As the MIB quote states, there will always be someone else who knows better than the rest of the world and will try to save it from itself – whether that means summoning an angelic horde to wipe out all the sinners, blasting off into space and throwing this rock into a star, or preventing someone from controlling everyone like a puppet.
Make sure there is some spin to why the world needs saving. Even better, make sure that the PCs solution solves one problem but causes 2 more (until you get to a point where everyone want’s to retire – don’t let a loose end hang). There is a reason, no matter how dumb, for why Bad Guy 654 decided to do what he did, and since his plan doesn’t succeed, there should be some kind of concequence. (This is assuming that epic-level evils arn’t stupid. If the threat is a giant space monster that is hungry, well, there isn’t technically a problem if you kill and and stop the planet from being eaten).
I’m done rambling. 🙂
Just about all of my epic-level adventures have been focused on more heavy roleplaying elements, as well as less combat. Less combat because throwing hordes of cannon fodder isn’t rewarding for me or the players – storylines that cause them to question themselves and their abilities, learning that the Uber Fireball of Doom isn’t always the answer – these are the questions that should be coming up in an adventure, not just epic level.
It’s really about pacing – saving the world every week gets boring, so you gotta do other stuffs to keep your player interested.
Saving the world can be done in many different ways. Politically maneuvering to get a maniac out of power, fighting off the threatening dragon, returning the artifact to its resting place, etc. The how of saving the world can make a big difference in if it gets stale or not.
I’ve also rarely taken a game to the saving the “world” level. Saving a country, dropping back an evil that doesn’t threaten the world, but still has a major impact on it can get the same effect. In the “real world” the entirety of the world is rarely if ever threatened. Even during major worldwide events, such as WWII, there was no threat to every country. Looking at gaming’s great grandfather, Lord of the Rings, Sauron wasn’t actually a threat to the whole world yet. His armies were on the rise, trouble was going to come, but it was a war of countries, not a cataclysmic event, yet. Knowing that the cataclysm rests in the background, but isn’t too near yet, can still leave room for progression into epic conflicts.
My favorite advice on epic level play comes from the d&d epic level handbook: don’t pull your punches. It can take more prep time, but taking a fairly traditional adventure and throwing on a bunch of other challenges at the same time makes it challenging and forces the players to make decisions and plans.
I’ve run the same epic campaign with three different groups and find the rules of D&D make it very difficult to run. It’s easy to say “less combat” but in D&D, by the time you’re 30th level, you want to show off how badass you are. Unfortunately that means the game slows down to a crawl while the Dervish makes 20 attacks. I’m now thinking that epic play isn’t very good: it’s better to just end the game on a high note with the players getting to use their awesome character in a memorable adventure, then starting over.
I make the epic have some of the trappings and feel of “saving the world” without actually doing “saving the world”. Since I don’t cut the PC’s any slack, I don’t actually like “saving the world” campaigns. After all, the PCs may fail–and then there goes my whole campaign world down in flames, when I might want to use it again.
So when I want a more epic story, with “saving the world” implications, I usually set up the stakes where the players are up against someone who wants to make the world significantly worse. If the players succeed, they can make the world significantly better. More likely, they’ll partially succeed, thwarting the worst aspects of the foes and doing some good.
There is almost always something left undone that still requires the services of the characters (or new ones by the same players). “Athens in chains for 100 years if you fail” still feels pretty epic to us. But then, we don’t mind making the next campaign about the PC rebels against the “chainers”–or their descendants with a chance to throw those chains off. 🙂
Saving the world is epic, but a good alternative is saving the PC. One of your PCs is cursed, found guilty, setup, poisoned with a slow acting toxin, getting married (jk), or any of a hundred “countdown” type situations. Now the rest of your players have to do everything they can to save one of their own. You see this in comic books a lot, and I’ve run these types of games with great success. They can be epic in scale, or much more private in setting, but it is a nice alternative to “saving the world…again”.
I keep things fresh for my Epic D&D Forgotten Realms game by including the up-to-the-minute goings on of NPCs important (more like â€œcloseâ€) to the PCs with the regular â€˜save the worldâ€™ stuff.
That sounds vague….what I mean is -for example- that jealous nobles of Waterdeep could send minions to try and break in to the PCs newly purchased villa in the North Ward even as the PCs are miles upon miles away in Castle Crag in Cormyr trying to devise a plan to drive the Army of Shade out of the Stonelands before they can sweep into Cormyr and take it over.
Say the PCâ€™s majordomo is nearly murdered but manages himself to have slain one of the agents. The servant uses his [i]sending[/i] stone to alert one of the players of the break in and killing, who then has to decide if he can break away from the planning long enough to figure out what the heck is going on.
The trick is not to make it an annoyance thing. Instead keep it familiar to some degree….perhaps the PC does teleport back to Waterdeep and learns the agent works for the same nobles the PCs had a run in with 2-3 game months ago, and has to decide first off what to do with the dead body….
Which brings me to my next method: I also like to keep many plots going at once. By that I mean the kind of plots that simple spell casting and knowledge skill checks canâ€™t fully unravel.
Players with Epic Characters are best challenged when their resources are low and the foes/problems/events keep on coming.
So imagine that same character just learning of the break in/murder, but in the middle of the night while heâ€™s trying to rest and regain spells for the next morning. Should he still go to Waterdeep? Is it worth it to fall behind in rest-time and spell memorization when the Shadovar could attack that same morning?
…that sort of thing, you know?
Lastly I try to set things up so my players can see how their actions/inactions can have ripple effects above and beyond the immediate. When done correctly this grounds them in the game world and keeps them thinking about it.
My take at any rate.
I gather the answer here is — You don’t.
Even Tolkein went from the large scale “Epic” quest to destroy the ring to the small scale (but perhaps even more important, as far as his characters were concerned) events in the Shire. There are a lot of good ideas in the comments here on how to keep the pot boiling, so-to-speak, without necessarily turning every plot into a save-the-world epic.
I’m running an epic game and the biggest element to its success are epic players. Not characters, PLAYERS. If the players don’t have an epic mind set it will be impossible to manage this level of gaming. They think in terms of changing governments, destroying citadels, and moving mountains. I say this also with the sense that I love action. So, while there is a healthy dose of intrigue and scheming, much of the game comes down to action.
Now, that said, the system I use is not D&D. After witnessing a close friends high level game (16th) and how D&D worked out there I had no interest in playing with that set of rules. It’s nice to see, from the posts above, that those conclusions weren’t all that far off the mark.
I run Fantasy Hero (Hero System). The one thing that game does, better than anything I’ve played before, is scale. This campaign started at 75 points (1st level D&D, more or less – maybe 2nd or 3rd) and is now at 350 points. The challenges are still as fair today as they were at 75 points.
I will dismiss the comment that an epic game cannot have a lot of combat. It can, absolutely, but it has to be in a system that allows for epic actions and results. Single stroke dragon kills, 2km radius earthquake spells, and monsters that can lock swords with the best fighters as opposed to trading blows until hit points disappear.
>>But how do you keep a campaign where the PCs >>regularly save the world fresh and exciting?
You can’t. It will soon get boring.
You must have a wide variety of adventures with stakes that are personal to the characters as individuals, not just bigger and bigger.
A quick summary of the techniques mentioned here in the comments:
– Run a parallel story focused on character drama
– The Batman Approach: mix in smaller stories
– Keep the world-saving secret from everyone else
– Solving one problem creates two others
– Focus on the roleplaying elements, not the combat
– Save the world in differnt ways each time
– Don’t pull your punches: put in the prep time to make the game truly epic
– Have the goal be to improve the world, but give it a “saving the world” feel
– Save a PC, rather than the world
– Keep a parallel focus on smaller events that are still of importance to the PCs
– The PCs’ world-saving actions have ripple effects
– Make sure the players (not the PCs) are in an epic mindset
Hopefully I got the gist of everyone’s suggestions — thank you! Your comments are very useful, and I know where I’ll be headed when I need to set up an epic game: right here.