How do you create and run a high-level campaign for fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, or the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game? It’s all about grander scale, more significant scenery and added complexity in both story and rules.
This complexity is a challenge for both players and game masters, and likely to be one of the reasons why low-level seem to be more popular. Low-level adventures are merely more manageable than high-level adventures. Perfectly understandable. However, you’re missing out if you never attempt to raise the power level and see what happens.
In a previous post, I’ve pondered on creating campaigns in general. This post is about high-level campaigns specifically, so let’s dig in:
- Preparing for the High-Level Campaign
- Grander Scenery, Bigger Monsters, and Better Loot
- More Complexity, Characters Options, and Tactical Choices
- The Third Act: Higher Stakes, Resolution, and Reward
Preparing for the High-Level Campaign
Some say you should start at the end as you plot your story, and I find that this makes a lot of sense. It gives focus as you progress, and I believe open-ended will eventually mean running out of steam and ending in an anti-climax. Always go out swinging if you can.
Begin at the End
I usually begin plotting the end once the players have created their characters and I may have a sense of what the conflicts in the story are.
- A couple of characters have criminal backgrounds and have turned to crime themselves to survive. They may not know any other life and may be likely to continue.
- Others are diehard royalists eager to become knights.
- The religious characters have their convictions and are looking to protect their church’s interests.
What could be a grand finish for this set of characters? What would be a satisfying climax given this beginning?
- The thieves’ guild and the church rally behind the royal family in a byzantine web of intrigue and corruption with the characters as the secret masters.
Deciding on an ending does not mean that this is the only finish to strive for, so if the players make other plans, let them. However, this ending gives you a possible satisfactory conclusion, unless the players’ actions present you with a more appropriate finish. Then, of course, you adjust your plans.
Begin at the Top
Conflict is the heart of any story so who are the factions when you look at your campaign setting? Clearly defined and confliction factions gives the characters possible allies and makes their choices both harder and more meaningful.
The example above quickly give me six or more factions for my campaign, and all should be developed to remain key players in the future high-level campaign and a grand finish. All factions should be at each other’s throats, which will give the players choices and room to maneuver.
- The royal house is unstable and needs allies to maintain power.
- The noble houses, some supporters of the crown, others in secret opposition of the royal house. All will require sellswords, informants and possibly assassins for both production and attacks.
- Two rival churches, both vying for royal support. One church is allied with the thieves’ guild. The other is at odds with the thieves.
- Two rival thieves’ guilds, both fighting to control the underworld, and both seek high society alliances for leverage and customers.
Introduce the Factions Early
Once you have the characters, the possible ending and your factions in place, you should introduce the factions into the adventures as soon as possible.
More factions will add twists and choices to otherwise straightforward adventures, and increase the stakes:
- The orc raiders did not attack any nameless caravan. In fact, a noble house or a thieves guild sponsored the caravan.
- Crypt in the temple ruin included remains and treasure related to a noble house. This noble house may pay above market value for the treasure or may take offense of the looted crypt. They may even pay for the restoration of the temple, who all of a sudden may need a high priest.
- The marauding brigands are not some random highwaymen, but in fact agents of one of the thieves’ guilds, noble houses or even the royal house. The brigands had a mission, a purpose, and their treasure includes evidence, and the adventurers who defeated them now find themselves in possession of both dangerous and valuable incriminating evidence.
- The new demon cult turns out to have members from all walks of life, and it turns out the cultist the adventurers just killed is, in fact, a fallen cleric, a thieves’ guild member, a noble heir or the royal princess. Either faction will deny knowledge of the departed’s hidden allegiance and viciously hunt down anyone who claims otherwise.
Grander Scenery, Bigger Monsters, and Better Loot
The signs of the fantasy campaign climbing the power curve is more splendid scenery, bigger monsters, and better loot – it at least with games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder RPG.
Some scoff at this, other gleefully dig into the spectacle with little reservation. The choice is yours.
One way to add gravitas to your campaign’s endgame is again to establish the locations, and monsters early. Work out the general concept and give them names. Reference them and foreshadow as you build your story, and you may notice that endgame gradually grows directions you did not anticipate.
Examples: The orcs on the riverbank of Anduin was not just any orcs, they carried the white had of Saruman, foreshadowing his power. The imperial forces in Star Wars talk about the emperor’s power for two movies until we finally meet him in person (not counting the brief glimpse in Empire). The Marvel movies hint at Thanos power for a dozen movies until we finally meet him.
More Complexity, Characters Options, and Tactical Choices
The blessing and the curse of a high-level fantasy campaign is the added complexity. The dynamic of the game ramp up as the characters gain new options and the flow of the game become harder to predict, and more options usually mean more rules.
You need to embrace this to enjoy a high-level campaign.
There is also a couple of things you can do to keep better up:
- Use unreliable narrators when foreshadowing the endgame. Hearsay and wild stories will create interest and invite questions, and anticipation for the future endgame will grow.
- Recycle encounters. Every time you use the encounter – being a lich lair or a band of orcs – you will play them a little better, and you can focus on whatever new elements you have introduced.
- Keep encounter stats separate from your adventure script, and limit each element to a single or at most two pages. This modularity will allow you mix-and-match old and new components faster and easier on the fly.
- Use minions. A smart villain uses villains, and an efficient game masters use minions to create a sense of scale and also drain character resources.
Pay some attention to whatever default assumptions in your game system of choice, and embrace you’re setting yourself up for some extra work if you choose to play against those assumptions.
Example: Low-Magic Pathfinder RPG and 3e D&D
I play the Pathfinder RPG, yet I like dark and gritty low-magic games, which does not quite match. I find myself continually tweaking encounter levels and creating new loot to match my vision of what my campaign is supposed to be.
This conflict was frustrating until I realized I partially played against my system of choice, which gave me a choice: switch system to something more appropriate or attempt to hack the game I was using.
Example: Minions in Pathfinder RPG and 3e D&D
The 3e D&D and Pathfinder RPG does not handle minions very well. Anything beyond six to eight participants in a balanced encounter, using the rules-as-written, will not pose a challenge at all for the characters. Minions are essential, but mostly for story reasons, so keep encounters with minions as brief as possible. Narrate the outcome if necessary.
Dealing with High-Level Characters?
The critical thing to realize is that the players have earned their character’s power, and should not be “dealt with.” The players have put in the hours and worked hard for their accomplishments. You, the Game Master, need to cope.
Experienced characters should have an impact, and be able to think big and successfully execute ambitious plans. Hampering their option to keep things manageable is understandable and tempting, but not a right way to deal with powerful characters in the long term.
So How Do You Cope?
There are several ways you can change and still challenge increasingly powerful characters.
- Use minions. Not only is the succubus a gifted sorcerer, but she has also brought a squad of hasted ogre barbarians juiced up on giant strength potions. Also, playing a smart villain to the fullest potential is difficult so a horde of minions will help to keep up appearances. Still not enough? Here comes the second wave!
- Don’t pull any punches. High-level characters are resilient and resourceful, and can often take more punishment than you imagine. Yes, wiping out the party is a risk, but who wants to live forever? Do you? Ok, increase the pressure in small increments, until you find the sweet spot. Just remember the players will notice if there is a real chance of a TPK (total party kill), which increases the tension.
- Make solid information hard to find. Some believe mysteries are impossible with divination magic and high-level skills. That is not the case. If you make powerful divination magic a requirement to success, instead of a problem, you may find that the players must think even harder to ask the right questions.
- Short deadlines. “The Demon Lord is rising, and the dragon has returned? Well! No time to prepare, we need to get going, or the kingdom falls.”
The Third Act: Higher Stakes, Resolution, and Reward
Preparing for the final act of a traditional three-act structure is next to impossible for roleplaying game campaigns, but that should not stop you from trying. The final act – say the last ten game sessions – is about wrapping everything up
Resolve Loose Ends
You are likely to have loose ends as the campaign draws to a close. The final third arc of the story is the time to close as many of these as possible. A sense of closure and answers is satisfying and is its reward.
The Grand Finish
The grand finish you imagined at the beginning may or may not have survived the course of the campaign, and it is a good thing if it did not. That means the players took charge of their characters’ stories, which is excellent.
So what happens if the characters chop off the villain’s head with a single blow? The villain they have fought for most of the campaign. Don’t panic! Don’t whisk away the villain with a teleport despite a successful counterspell.
I guarantee you the players will remember that critical hit better than the two-hour hit point-grind that follows if you fudge the dice in panic. They may laugh about that crit for years – the hit points grind less so.
Pad the final fight with minions if you’re worried, but don’t cheat the players of a critical hit victory. They may feel cheated.
If the characters successfully dealt with all the challenges and there is a logical conclusion, make sure to acknowledge that in the end. Did the girl get the boy? Who is the new king? Is there a new thieves’ guild? Who is the new archpriest of the church?
Epilogue and Future Campaigns
I enjoy creating short epilogues after RPG campaign has ended, for shorting out long-term consequences and whatever loose ends and mysteries that remain.
Creating this epilogue is satisfactory on its own, and I share this with the players, and it is an excellent platform for a possible new game with a different set of characters.
Rinse and repeat.
- Create Roleplaying Game Characters
- Create Roleplaying Game Campaigns
- GM Tips for Roleplaying Game Sessions
- Planar Adventures
- Religion for Fantasy Roleplaying Games
The Reading List
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Kobold Press Plots and Campaigns (2016) has some articles on related topics, including the three-act structure and starting at the end. This is pure gold and highly recommended.
High-level play can be many things. Some games deal with kingdoms, armies and wealth, while other deal with characters with god-like personal power.
Again the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (1991) continues to amaze me as it touches these topics quite well, despite the book’s age and limited scope.
The Pathfinder Ultimate Campaigns (2013) give you some tool for the former, dealing with kingdom building, armies and warfare on a grand scale. The rules are available for free online, or you can try to track down the published book.
If you want the crank it up to eleven with OGL 3e games, you’ll want to consider the old Epic Level Handbook (2001) or the Pathfinder Mythic Adventures (2013). Both have its share of problems, so read reviews carefully. Both rules sets have been available for free online, and while the official WOTC version appears to be down, the Pathfinder mythic rules are still up on the Paizo website.
Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS should get more recognition, and I bring it up here specifically because Steven Ericson and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Malazan grew from an AD&D game into a GURPS game back in the 80’s. That, if anything, should tell you something about GURPS potential.
Fantasy books to inspire high-level fantasy roleplaying campaigns includes Steven Ericson and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Malazan novels, Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer (1965) and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996).
Ericsson and Esslemont weave a grand tale of gods, demigods and influential individuals warring across millennia and continents. Michael Moorcock focuses on one powerful individual dealing with powerful supernatural entities in a collapsing world. Martin’s Westeros story is more down to earth with a civil war and battling noble houses.