This past week, I wrote the final session of my three year long Iron Heroes campaign. In the final session, the heroes confront the Demon King, the main villain whom they have spent the past thee years amassing enough power to confront him. In this session of Lessons From The Long Campaign, I am going to talk about how to deliver the climax for your epic campaign.

The Epic Climax

Every epic story has its climatic moment, most often a battle. This moment is no normal moment, typically the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Think of Frodo at Mount Doom, or the final stand of the King Leonidas and the Spartans. Your epic campaign should be no different.

When running an epic campaign, you need to have a climatic moment. Typically the conclusion of the climatic moment marks the ending of the story, leaving only the wrap up and ending of the story. You need not start the campaign knowing what the climatic moment is going to be, it can develop through the course of the campaign, but at some point it should be clear to the players what the climatic moment will be. Your job will be not only to define that moment, but to guide the players to that moment, building it up along the way.

Eventually Frodo Reaches The Mountain

No matter how much you love your epic campaign, there comes a time, when you must deliver the climatic moment. The climatic moment is bittersweet. On the one hand, the climatic moment represents the pinnacle of your storytelling, the moment that you have built up for your players over the course of your campaign. On the other hand, once you play out the scene, there will be little left to do in your campaign, other than to start wrapping it up.

Regardless of the bittersweet flavor, as a GM running an epic campaign, you must deliver the climatic moment, and it must be huge. No simple battle or easy challenge. Your scene must test every aspect of the characters. Done correctly your players should be full of anxiety, as the scene unfolds, with their excitement building as they get closer to success. On that point let me state…

It Is Not Always The Outcome That Matters, But Rather The Journey

Lets be honest, if your players have survived session after session, and have gone from low level characters to epic heroes, the chance that you are going to allow a TPK in the final battle is pretty small, or you are one sadistic GM. That said, your goal in running the Climatic scene is to make the players earn their victory. The scene should challenge your players on many different levels.

You must set up your climatic scene in a way, that ever aspect of the scene is epic in scale. Your opponent must be massive in scale, either in size, power, or both. Your location should be fantastic, and should play a role in the scene. Don’t let your climatic battle take place in a empty 20’x20′ room. Place it in a temple, that is crumbling around the heroes or on the edge of a volcano. Add some additional elements of drama to the scene, or keep a surprise hidden until the middle of the scene.

At the same time, you need to keep good control of the scene. You are walking a fine line between an epic victory or the worst TPK in RPG history. You want to steer the scene into a climatic victory for your players, but at the same time you don’t want your players thinking that the conclusion of the scene is pre-determined. How exactly you will accomplish this will depend somewhat on the game system, and how much wiggle room the systems has. Regardless of the system, what you will need to do, is to establish how much player damage you are willing to allow, and at what point should your players win the battle.

For instance, in a party of five characters, you may decide that you will allow no more than two of the five characters die during the combat, and that the combat will run no less than 10 rounds. After you have established your threshold for the scene, you will need to decide what you will do if either condition fails. In the case above, perhaps you will scale down the opponent’s attacks or reduce its hit points after the second hero falls. If the fight is progressing too quickly, you may increase the Armor Class of the opponent or give it some reserve hit points. The goal is for the players to be on the edge of their seats before the fight turns in their direction, and for that killing blow on the opponent to elicit cheers from the group.

Go Slow And Make It Last

Now that we have talked about what goes in to the climatic moment, the next bit of advice is not to rush the campaign to get reach the climax. Pacing your in campaign is important. Reach the climatic moment too early, and your players will not have a high anticipation of the scene, leaving you with a somewhat anticlimactic moment. Wait too long, and your players will be come frustrated, never believing that the moment is going to arrive.

The best way to pace your game is to define what the climatic moment will be and then come up with a list of intermediate goals, milestones, which the characters can achieve on their path to the climatic moment. If you are playing a game with levels, you can also decide what levels the characters should be as they reach each milestone.

For example: In my iron Heroes campaign. The climatic moment is the battle with the Demon King. I knew that I wanted the players to be close to 20th level for this scene. My milestones for the campaign were all events that would support the players reaching the Demon King. They look like this:

  • Arion finds artifacts that his Grandfather has hidden. (level 5-7)
  • Kelven carries the Seal of Ceradome to the city of Olmkala
  • The Heroes make allies and raise an army (level 10)
  • Severis finds the Archmage Shankar
  • The Humans go to war with the Demons (level 12-14)
  • The Humans take the City of Inkala
  • Kelven frees the All Father’s Angels from their Demonic Prison (level 15+)

With your climatic moment defined, and your milestones laid out, you now have an arc of adventures that the players will follow. As they achieve each of the milestones, you should inform them, usually through NPC’s how these milestones bring them closer to the climatic moment. The milestones will give the players that sense of accomplishment along their journey, and focus them for your climatic moment. It creates player and character investment by working hard to reach the climatic moment.

As for how much time it takes to accomplish each of the milestones and reach the climatic moment, will be your judgment. Depending on how often you play, the overall interest level of the group, etc will determine how long your campaign should go. Discuss with your players, at regular intervals, how they feel about the campaign. If your players are engaged and enthusiastic about the game, you can continue your pace leading to the climatic moment. If your players are losing interest, of if you are burning out, it may be time to pick up the pace.

In my iron Heroes campaign, we reached the end of a session in March, and it became clear to me that the campaign was ready for the final push. I discussed it with the players, and they all agreed. I then laid out the remaining sessions, and figured out where the final session would come. The group agreed that timeline sounded good, and we proceeded from there.

Never End Without The Climax

In an ideal world. your campaign will run through all your milestones and reach the climatic moment years after the campaign starts. In truth a lot can happen in real life, as you are running your campaign. Events may occur that lead to an early ending of the campaign. If the ending is not sudden, and you have a few sessions before the end of the campaign, I recommend fast-forwarding your campaign and play out the climatic scene. This way, your campaign will have closure, and you and your players will have the satisfaction of knowing how the campaign ended.

For some great advice on how to Fast-Forward your campaign to a closure, our Grand Gnome, Martin, wrote a great article on How To End A Campaign: Fast Forward. It is worth the read, should you wind up in this situation.

Lessons Learned

I learned a few lessons about the climatic moment of the campaign. First, if you are going to base your whole campaign on one climatic scene, you need to plan a path to achieve it, by using milestones, and communicate that plan to your players, so that they feel as they are making progress. Second, your climatic scene is not about who wins or loses, but rather about the drama that occurs in the scene, so make it as dramatic as possible. Third, is pacing. You can’t deliver the climax of your campaign too soon, and you can’t stall it forever. By going with your instincts and talking to your players, you will know just when its time for the climatic scene.