GM Tips, hosted by the talented veteran Game Master Satine Phoenix, is our show to help Dungeon Masters and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we started a theme talking about Homebrew Games, and that continues this week, switching from impromptu to epic.
Any GM who has seen Critical Role would love to make their tabletop games feel that epic gut wrenching feel from an intense encounter. One in which victory was grasped by the narrowest of dice rolls and the fate of empires at stake. While you can’t keep a game feeling epic like this every session, you can build up to it, or even design them.
On this episode of GM Tips with Satine Phoenix, the veritable Chris Lindsay from Wizards of the Coast brings his advice for those epic homebrew games.
“Weather is never fun.” – Chris Lindsay. There is merit to this statement—in every epic battle it’s always raining, or you are on an ice lake, or massive thunderclouds loom on the horizon. While Satine and Chris covered many aspects of running an epic homebrew game, here are some other ways to tackle the beast.
This is a trick we’ve seen in convention games or larger company events for a while. A group of players each engage with a smaller module to affect a large scale battle. It’s something that both Satine and Chris have done for big events, and the basic layout is pretty simple: one simple module with a few encounters or objectives for each team. The more teams that win, the greater the chance for success. Any game from D&D to Shadowrun can pull this multi-table epic encounter off. But what about your home games?
Even if you only have one group of players, this can still be done. Take each player and give them command of their own army and to increase tension, run them on separate nights or at separate times. The intent is exactly the same as a big convention game — each character has their own goal, a crew of NPC’s and an objective. Popular ones tend to be disabling the enemies wizards or even running a hacking mission in Shadowrun so your rigger friends can sneak in undetected. While you can do this all the same night, it has a lot more impact if you give yourself some GM time in between mini-stories to let the results sink in. This is also a great time to invite a friend over and have a co-GM.
Death Is Not Enough
Death as a risk for failure is a powerful motivator, but it’s not enough to create that epic feeling. When you are writing your session, make sure you’ve had enough time to find something the players care about. Then threaten that. As mentioned in the video, storytellers need build-up for something to be considered epic. That includes player attachment to the campaign as well. A major battle at level one will feel very different from level fifteen after the players have an emotional investment.
Planning for deaths, failures, and motivations is where a lot of GM time is spent. Remind yourself that each can be a mere temporary setback, enhancing the awesome nature of what you planned for later. Killing your entire party with an archvillain while he starts ravaging the strongholds of all their allies and friends is a powerful motivator. Then dropping all of them in the underworld and making them race against time to get out before everything the care about is gone: that’s a great way to launch an epic storyline.
The Snowball Effect
This method of story writing is a good little trick to put in your GM pocket. If you are the kind of storyteller that uses campaigns or other premade/store-bought material and reworks them into your homebrew game then the snowball campaign method naturally becomes epic. Run a short game. During wrap up, take any small villain that escaped or lived, and set it aside for later. Run another small game. Repeat bad guy storage.
Even if you run long games than span entire tiers of play, store the surviving bad guys for later. When the next set of players sits down at your table, drop them in the same world—with those survived bad guys. Even though it’s a different game, and maybe even different characters, save all those stories and loose ends. Instead of going on Lost Mine of Phandelver for some plucky naïve dwarf, the Black Spider himself is out for revenge, trying to capture it from the Rockseeker brothers and the former PC’s… and hires you. Once you start taking storyline scraps from one module and packing them in a snowball for another you’ll start creating epic adventures through play, rather than writing.
What qualifies as epic in your games? Let us know in the comments below!
Looking for More Useful GM Tips?
- Mash-up the Dread System in your tabletop RPG’s to increase tension.
- How to handle long-running and epic rpg campaigns.
- Shop the Geek & Sundry store for DM gear, like a “How Do You Want to Do This” hoodie!
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.