Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Epic Level Campaiging - Idea #1: MANG!
I've been reading this thread at EN World about Epic Tier play and there is an interesting mixture of opinions in it. There also seem to be a few people throwing up their hands and saying they can't see how to make it work due to campaign impact, lack of enemies, or a disinterest in planar themes for their game. I had some ideas on all of those so I have outlined three ideas for Epic play, the first of which is below.
Note: If you have been running a campaign for 20 years and have players that have been running the same characters for that long then you may not want to do any of these. I think that after a few years a campaign achieves a certain comfort level and those involved, players and DM alike, would be loathe to upset it too drastically. Also, Epic play is designed (in 4E anyway) to have an end point. This is a totally different attitude than many old school campaigns that were intended as an open-ended sandbox kind of thing that had no planned ending - as long as someone was interested, the campaign would keep rolling along. Neither one is wrong, they're just very different and I would say incompatible at a basic level unless people are willing to risk shaking things up. This particular one is a concept that the world could recover from though - read on:
For those who really don't like the extra-planar element, how about this: Your PC's have achieved level 20, defeated major evil, and secured a comfortable life for themselves as rulers or leaders of the kingdom. All is good and no one is terribly interested in attacking the Abyss or baiting Tiamat or giving Ogremoch a bath. Then one day a large chunk of rock floating in the sky is sighted off the coast of the players' continent. It moves inland, casting a shadow across the land, then disgorges all manner of flying creatures and ships that begin terrorizing the kingdom, then a magical projection informs the populace that they are now part of the Empire of Mang the Unmerciful. Cue dramatic music and player reaction!
Yes, this is Epic Idea #1 "Mang the Unmerciful" or the invasion from across the sea.
First, who is Mang? Mang is a higher-level Epic character who has chosen the path of the Dynast or the Empire Builder and is working hard to make it come about. He has legions of troops from all kinds of races the PC's have never seen. He has strange magic they have never encountered. He has seen it al land done it all and nothing will surprise him. He has a destiny to fulfill and nothing will deter him, either.
Alternatives: none really. You need to make this guy up, probably just like a level 30 PC. You could have a ruling council instead of a single leader, but then you lose the epic destiny angle. unless you make it an adventuring party. Heh. That would enable a series of smaller climaxes as each one is confronted and defeated leading up to the final defeat of the last few characters at the end. It could be a fun alternative if you're had a lot of singular bad guys at lower levels
Second, How does it start? If you want dramatic build-up, let Mang start with a neighboring kingdom, maybe an ally, or maybe an enemy. Let him make an example of them. This should be an alien threat and it should use none of the conventional featured monsters of the campaign thus far and it should utterly dominate. Later, conscripted conventional forces will add a little horror to the campaign as the defeated are added to Mang's unstoppable war machine. The initial actions of the PC's are likely to be reactionary - gather forces, gather information, find out what's going on - but at some point will become proactive as the invasion proceeds. There could even be an initial setback as the PC's kingdom is conquered, their cities are razed, and their armies defeated. They may have to retreat and regroup.
Alternatives: If your world is completely mapped then Mang is from one of the moons. Your world has moons right? It's right there in your notes - it's just that no one cared enough to ask about them before. If not then maybe he's from the Hidden Moon that no one speaks of - clearly an evil place, perhaps tainted by the Far Realm.. Going there is probably dangerous. If he conquered it then he is clearly a major major badass and probably has powerful backing.
Third - Resources? Say you're playing in a normal campaign world like the Forgotten Realms. Well then Mang's troops include a whole bunch of Warforged ala Eberron and a bunch of monsters and races from the Dark Sun books. Banned the PHB 3 in your campaign? Make the enemies Psionic! The main thing is to give the warlord's forces a feel of being totally alien. Imagine a group of players fighting Drow for the first time ever in the form of a 20th level hit team coming to assassinate the king. Darkness dropping everywhere, plentiful use of poison attacks, female leaders - it's a whole different thing from say orcs, ogres, and giants. Plus, if the divine figures prominently in your world then the Emperor may have whole pantheon of gods backing him - alien gods the PC's know nothing about, or a pack of Elemental lords, or even an Infernal or Abyssal power.I like the Alien Gods idea best - keep the players guessing. Make it a Far Realm power and blow their minds.
Alternatives: What, you don't want to drop a bunch of Warforged Battleminds on your PC's? Ok, then use extra-planar race but make them non-extra-planar. Githyanki would be great here - alien, powerful, and mean. They don;t have to be specifically from the Astral plane - they are from "a distant kingdom". Mang defeated their lich-queen and forced the entire race into servitude which the race hates but they have no choice. this easily leads to an adventure to rescue the lich-queen of the githyanki, setting the race free and robbing Mang of one of his most powerful troop types. heck, they might even join the PC's army with a good diplomacy roll...
Fourth - What do they do? The players have to get away from the initial invasion or turn it aside then either join it or try to stop it. This is about the time they should be choosing their Epic Destinies - Demigod? Maybe you are the "Fist of Ares" chosen to lead his armies. Archmage? Maybe you are the Arcanist Supreme, defender of the world against the threats of the corrupted magic of the Far Realm. Trickster? You are the Ultimate Rebel, focal point of the forces of Chaos to resist this eruption of Law and restore the natural order of things. Once destinies are chosen then the players should be full of ideas - teleport to Mang's homeland and find out his enemies and weaknesses; Gather a force of dragons and make a direct assault to capture one of his smaller floating fortresses to begin fighting him on even terms; craft a magical artifact capable of blowing his floating fortress out of the sky; unleash the tarrasque to give him a different problem to deal with; Rally the faithful across the entire continent to gather an army as large or larger than his -there are all sorts of options so let your players do some of the lifting here. It should be epic - think Star Wars, with Mang's floating fortress as the Death Star and you're on the right track..
Alternatives: If they decide to join him then the campaign then just got really interesting. The PC's get to pay back all those other power=players that snubbed them in prior sessions. The Epic destinies could be tied up with recruiting allies to join the fight -the abyss, the nine hells, archons, elemental lords, the primal spirits, etc. Other sources of inspiration here involve anything that covers a struggle against overwhelming forces: Babylon 5, Lord of the Rings, Terminator movies (hey time travel), Space Cruiser Yamato - inspiration is everywhere. Think "missions" rather than wandering around type adventures and it should be good.
Fifth - How does it end? Well it could end with the last surviving PC having a sword-duel with Mang on the top of his fortress as it slowly falls out of the sky, but that can be hard to arrange. It could be a raid on dragonback to fly into the interior of the fortress and destroy the magical engine that powers it or infiltrating the rock, drawing off the elite guard, then facing off with Mang and his second-in-command inside the palace. Perhaps Mang is slain as the apparent climax of the campaign then the alien god that lent him its power manifests over his dead body and an even bigger fight is on for the finale at level 30.
Alternatives: A lot of this will depend on what your players do but there does need to be a way for them to win and it does need to be more than poisoning Mang's drink IMO. Serious damage should be done, depending on how much you want to hit the reset button at the end. This is a good way to "change the map" and set the world up for a New Age, which might even be the next campaign. Maybe one of Mang's lieutenant's escapes with a smaller fortress and some troops and becomes the main threat for that next game at the lower levels, becoming a permanent part of the new landscape, along with new races and new magic types and items.