GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last article we talked about combining multiple tables in the same world, and this week we tackle single-table epics over a weekend.
Every gaming group faces the massive hurdle of scheduling. It’s like a delicate dance between free time, imagination, and responsibilities all rolled up into one ball of drama. When the final schedule is set, inevitably, life critically botches on someone and a player has to quit. If this happens a few times, even long-running epic campaigns find themselves coming to a screeching halt. The hazards of scheduling aren’t the only reason that a large weekend epic should be done. Do we really need an excuse for a hotel party with dice, snacks, fancy mead and roleplaying? I think not.
A weekend epic is the sort of game session you plan for six months out. Invite all your friends who have played, will play, or have even thought about playing the game and get the best one-shot challenge you can muster. The logistics are easy for you: pick a date that works for you that is really far out in advance—and invite everyone. Whoever manages to make it is your party for the event. Whether the event is part of an existing campaign or a standalone adventure, here are some GM Tips for running and writing this kind of story.
Keep It Simple
A weekend epic isn’t the time to break out your conspiracy plot. You’ll be playing for long sessions, staying up late, and bullshitting for a large portion of this so a game of hyper complex MegaCorporation shell games isn’t going to do anyone favors.
If you write it.
On the GM side of the table, stick to a clear-cut antagonist and objective: an artificial intelligence has hooked itself up to the internet and determined that humans are a plague should be wiped out, or a red dragon has awoken from its mountain and is terrorizing the countryside in its quest for food. A good epic starts with some visceral plot line that everyone is excited to engage in.
If you can’t write your epic’s plotline in a single sentence, then delete it and try again.
I really want to double down on the importance of this simplicity for epics. Too often storytellers write themselves in some over complex scenario because we think that extra time allows for extra complexity. It doesn’t. Let the players fill in the gaps and improvise your story hooks based on their backgrounds and actions. Trying to beat an impossible dungeon is a fair weekend party, and the players will bring their own conspiracy to the table, anyway…
Engage In Shenanigans
Prior to the epic weekend, spend time with the players you know are coming and get their characters in the world. Use the months leading up to the event to assign corporations, clans, or even character factions with their own motives to the players. If the above tip is about keeping the core plot simple, this is tips is how you deviate from that. Let your players be the agencies of complexity and gears that will take the epic off the rails.
By giving each player a slate of goals (I use three goals), they have different ways to contribute during the weekend based on their mood. A good split is a martial goal (assassinating a certain guild leader), a social goal (convincing the Lich to lay waste to a particular village), and a spiritual goal (ensuring that the final sacrifice is completed in your god’s name). After you write the goals and hand them to the players, you as the GM can dust off your hands and get to running your core storyline. If the player succeeds or fails their objectives, that’s entirely upon them. Handing out three-part goals during epic weekends will cause players to be curious about the goals of others…which is where shenanigans often ensue.
Aim To Kill Half
Someone has to die in the epic (otherwise it’s just a moderate weekend) and balancing encounters for large parties is a challenge. If you aim for a total-party-kill, you best have some extra content set aside, so let’s shoot for half instead. Games like Ten Candles and Dread are built around party members dying over the weekend so fantastic stories can unfold over the bodies of their comrades. Impossible dungeons are seen as a challenge to beat, and players are eager to test their characters true mettle. These weekends are where you can cut loose as a storyteller and give them true challenges.
Because somehow, someway, they will find a way to outsmart you and survive (even if they are missing a few eyeballs). Even if you do kill a few, a great way to end is describing their cold dead bodies rising up to join the enemy ranks, or a divine intervention if you go to far with the challenge. Ultimately, you want to make sure that the epic is actually challenging. Don’t low-ball yourself and end up with a lukewarm boss fight, and you also need to avoid frustrating your players. Which means at the end of your planning you should sit back and ask yourself: “How would I beat this?”
Have any GM Topics you would like us to cover? Let us know in the comments below!
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Featured Image: Shadowrun The 6th World by Catalyst Labs
Image Credits: Shadowrun Standoff by Catalyst Games, Plane of Air by Wizards of the Coast
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.