For those of you just joining us, as part of my series on campaign building, I’ve embarked on a haphazard quest to catalogue all the various “types” of campaigns I could think of so that I could describe them and discuss some of the things GMs need to be aware of when starting that “type” of campaign. But I have to keep putting “type” in quotation marks because it’s a vague, nebulous sort of thing. It’s not solid or exhaustive or exclusive or anything like that. Maybe “traits” would be a good word. Or maybe “keywords” would work. Yeah. Those words that get stuck on monsters or cards or whatever game elements you have that act primarily as descriptors and arbiters of rules interactions which can mostly be combined except when they logically make no sense.
So, if my campaign were a Pokeman card, it would have the traits of Large in Scope and Scale (Home Base), False Start, Save the World, and Onion Layered. But that False Start thing is more a consequence of the fact that all cards that have Save the World and Onion Layered end up sharing False Start traits, so it’s easier just to give them trait. You know how it is. It would also be Elemental for what that’s worth, and its alignment would be Lawful-Awesome.
The point is, we’re discussing another campaign trait that your campaign might or might not have on the list of its one or several or many traits. We’re talking about the Save the World campaign. Though, I admit a better name would be the Epic Quest campaign. It’s just that most good-aligned Epic Quest campaigns end up being about Saving the World. But that’s getting complicated. So maybe I’d better get myself out of this Long, Rambling Introduction™ before this gets any worse and you can’t tell my sarcasm from my crazy terminology anymore. But before I do…
This article is about a straight-up Save the World Campaigns and Epic Quest Campaigns. But, those campaigns often get combined with other campaigns, especially Onion Layered Campaigns and False Start Campaigns. Save the World Campaigns can take a lot of different forms depending on the other types of traits involved. And we’ll talk about those sorts of hybrids later. If this campaign type seems simple and straightforward, that’s why. Okay?
The Quest to End All Quests
There’s a campaign type that is pretty much the exemplar of the fantasy D&D campaign. In fact, it’s pretty much the second type of D&D campaign ever to come into existence. The first was the Delving the Depths Campaign. Well, maybe it was the third, but I think Dungeon of the Week Campaigns are a subset of Delving the Depths Campaigns. Though those campaigns did segue into Adventure of the Week Campaigns. But that one blurs the line between a shape and a trait. Oi vey. It’s happening again. See, this is the problem when you’re trying to invent a framework while also explaining it to people. You keep thinking of things to add to it. Okay, let’s leave off the Delving the Depths and Adventure of the Week Campaigns for future articles about campaigns and focus on THIS article. Or else we’ll never get out.
There’s a campaign type that is pretty much the exemplar of the fantasy D&D campaign. In fact, it’s one of the oldest types of true campaigns. And that type is the Epic Quest campaign. An Epic Quest campaign is pretty straightforward, as campaigns go. There’s a thing that needs doing, and a group of adventurers set out to do it. Often, those adventurers come together from diverse background and learn about the importance of teamwork and friendship somewhere along the way. And then that one antisocial player tries to steal the MacGuffin for himself, and the GM tries to get everything back on track with a simple orc encounter, but the orcs roll really well, the PCs roll really badly, the party has a huge falling out, and the campaign ends up ripped in six different directions.
Now, my normal sarcasm actually serves a purpose there. Because the most well-known example of the Epic Quest Campaign is, of course, the Fellowship of the Rings. The party ends up in possession of a magical MacGuffin, and they have to bring it to the one place it can be destroyed before the BBEG gets a hold of it and uses it to take over the world. Along the way, they have many exciting adventures. And then they destroy the artifact. And the world is saved. Huzzah. Mostly.
Epic Quest Campaigns are also quite common in video games. Did you ever play any fantasy role-playing or adventure game ever? There you go. Honestly, a gigantic majority of video games of every genre are Epic Quest Campaigns. They give you a quest. And then you spend between 12 and 200 hours doing it. Or getting distracted from it doing sidequests.
Because D&D has its roots in heroic adventure and the characters are generally good aligned – and that’s how D&D plays best – most Epic Quest Campaigns involve dealing with some kind of evil threat to something. Obviously, there are always villains trying to take over the world. Or destroy the world. Or ancient magical threats that were sealed away and will destroy the world if they get out. So I tend to call these sorts of campaigns Save the World campaigns. Yeah, the threat isn’t always necessarily to the whole world. You could have a whole campaign about saving a kingdom or a city. Or about saving all the cosmos. Or all of reality. They all qualify. The point is if something terrible is going to happen and the epic quest is to prevent the terrible thing from happening, and if the quest fails the terrible thing happens, it’s a Save the World Campaign. And if the Epic Quest is about anything else, it’s an Epic Quest Campaign. But those two campaign types are so similar that differentiating them isn’t important. And usually, other campaign traits will provide the differences. For example, if the heroes and the villain in the Save the World campaign are pushing back and forth and actively opposing one another, you have Nemesis Campaign. And I’d better start keeping a list of these names.
An Epic Quest campaign is any campaign that includes a single, overarching goal that the players have to accomplish to “win” the campaign. And the desire to accomplish that goal is the glue that holds the campaign together. Or else it becomes the glue that holds the campaign together. While the heroes might initially come together for a variety of reasons and they might have their own goals and might achieve their own goals on the way to the end of the campaign, the resolve to see the epic quest through is the thing that keeps the players together.
As a result, most Epic Quest Campaigns are Noodle campaigns. The Epic Quest provides a single, major plot-line that connects all or most of the adventures. And any other plotlines tend to get relegated to side stories.
Why Epic Quests are Awesome
A straight-up Epic Quest campaign with no weird modifications or funny business seems like a cliched, boring, trite way to play, doesn’t it? It’s basically just one long, linear adventure. And if you think that sounds bad, you don’t understand players at all. See, Epic Quests resonate very strongly with a very large subset of players. That’s partly because they facilitate rising challenge, rising tension, and a well-structured narrative, but it’s also because their straightforward nature provides the players with clear motivations, an obvious finish line, and an easy way to measure progress.
The clear motivation provides a common ground around which the characters can rally. And even around which the players can create their characters. Basically, they provide both a premise for the campaign, and they provide the glue that holds the campaign together. But they don’t preclude personal goals and motivations. That is, every player can also imbue their character with personal motivations, goals, aspirations, hopes, and dreams. And the Epic Quest motivation makes those personal motivations work better in several ways. First, the Epic Quest motivation provides a hook off which a player who is otherwise struggling for motivation can hang something. Instead of inventing something whole cloth to explain what their character wants, they can simply explain why the Epic Quest is personally important to them. Second, if a player does decide to create something more personal, they know they will still have to engage with the Epic Quest goal. So, there’s a much smaller chance that their personal goal will end up creating friction in the game and the group or overwhelming the campaign. The personal goal has to be compatible with the Epic Quest goal. Third, if a player doesn’t want to be bothered with that personal goal bulls$&%, well, the Epic Quest goal is good enough. So, players can decide how deep they want to go down the “personal story” rabbit hole.
The finish line provides a sense of direction. Very rarely will the players end up rudderless and adrift, wondering what do to next. And even if they aren’t sure exactly what to do, they at least remain pointed vaguely in the right direction so that a simple nudge is all it takes to get them back on track. Epic Quest games rarely end up completely lost. That said, the GM does have to know how to work within the Epic Quest framework to take advantage of this. If the GM doesn’t know how to build and execute an Epic Quest properly, the players are just as likely to end up lost as they are in any other campaign. But we’ll talk about that part below.
The measurable progress thing is way more important than a lot of GMs realize. It is important – especially over the course of months – for the players to feel like their efforts are getting them somewhere. Have you ever played in one of those “perpetual exploration” type games where there are no clear divisions between the adventures, no major victories, no story milestones, just traveling from place to place, seeing what there is to see, and having encounters along the way? Those are terrible because they feel like a treadmill. It’s just an endless succession of stuff. But with an Epic Quest, there’s a finish line. And as long as the GM does it right, the Epic Quest provides a measurable progress indicator.
So those are the three things an Epic Quest gets you: clear motivations, a finish line to move toward, and a way to measurable progress. And if those sorts of things appeal to your players, you’ll want to add an Epic Quest to your campaign. So, how do you do it right? And how might you screw it up? In short, how do you build a good Epic Quest campaign?
Just a Big Adventure
In the end, an Epic Quest campaign is basically just a super-adventure. That is, it’s very similar in structure to a single fantasy adventure. And, as such, creating an Epic Quest campaign STARTS the same way that is creating a good adventure STARTS. It STARTS at the end. You have to figure out what the resolution is. What’s the object of the quest? What ends the campaign? Basically, you have to figure out what the climax is. Killing a major entity? Getting home? Recovering an artifact and unleashing its power to remake the world? Freeing an imprisoned deity? Slaying an uppity deity? Destroying an artifact before it can be used to unmake the world?
Once you’ve figured out the object of the quest, you have to figure out why anyone would be motivated to complete that quest. Why would anyone want to kill the entity? Why does the uppity deity need to be slain? Why does that other deity need to be freed? And that’s just like building an adventure too. After you figure out the resolution, you have to figure out the motivation.
Yeah, I know. I’m doing a lot of those backlink things. But, look, that’s what GM is. It’s applying a lot of the same skills over and over again in different ways. And I’ve been doing this a long time now. Eventually, I am going to write an article that is just a series of links to all of my previous articles.
But honestly, this s$&% should be obvious. To have an Epic Quest, you need an actual quest. And for people to undertake said Epic Quest, there has to be a reason to want to. It’s not f$&%ing rocket science, people. And hell, even rocket science is basically just two principles of physics repeatedly applied over the top of each other in more complex ways. At least, that’s how I understand it. Which is probably why I haven’t been asked to build a rocket for anyone.
The whole thing differs in the structure. Whereas an adventure is a series of encounters and scenes that leads from the motivation to the resolution, an Epic Quest campaign is a series of adventures that leads from the motivation to the resolution. Completely f$&%ing different.
Though, honestly, this step really does trip people up. So, let’s look a little closer.
The Adventures in the Way
When you really break it down, an Epic Quest campaign is just a whole series of things that have to be done before the heroes can complete the quest they want to complete. It’s basically just a series of obstacles so complex that each obstacle warrants an adventure. Look at the story of The Hobbit. That was basically an Epic Quest campaign that started with “we want to go kill a dragon” and ended with “the dragon is dead,” not counting the ancillary bulls$&% that came afterwards with the war nor all the crap that Peter Jackson added to bloat that abomination up to three films when f$&%ing Rankin-Bass managed to just barely get a 90 minute cartoon out of the whole thing.
Building an Epic Quest campaign is just a matter of taking a single quest and adding enough steps – enough plot points – to get a campaign of sufficient length. And that’s it. But there’s a couple of things to keep in mind and a couple of ways to do it.
First, there are three basic ways to structure an Epic Quest Campaign. Or rather, to structure the plot points that add up to the Epic Quest campaign. You can have the players Follow a Dotted Line. You can have the players Gather the Ingredients. Or you can have the players Peel the Layers. That third option combines Epic Quests with a campaign type we haven’t talked about yet. So, we’ll save it for another day. Let’s talk about the other two.
A Follow the Dotted Line type of Epic Quest is one in which the party knows the ultimate endpoint – whatever it is – but they don’t quite know how to get there. They can’t see the whole path. Instead, they can only see the next step. And each next step leads to the next next step. Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Quest VIII both provide examples of this sort of structure. In both of those games, the heroes spend most of the game chasing a fugitive, trying to run him down. They know, ultimately, the goal is to defeat the villain. But they don’t know what the villain is up to. All they can do is follow the trail. The adventures they encounter along the path are mainly to do with reacting to what the villain did in a particular location, dealing with obstacles the villain has left in their path, or having unrelated adventures that empower them in various ways to someday defeat the villain. Another example of a Follow the Dotted Line Epic Quest is the fricking Odyssey by Homer. Yeah, that’s right. I’m finally referencing something that isn’t a video game. That’s the story of a dude whose Epic Quest is to go home after a war. And, on his long, winding journey home, he has a bunch of adventures.
The advantage of the Dotted Line Epic Quest is that each adventure leads to the next somehow. Assuming the GM makes that happen. And you DO have to make that happen. You have to make sure each adventure either provides a hook for the next adventure or else provides a transition into the next adventure. If you do that, you get that clear direction thing that makes Epic Quests so awesome. If you f$&% that up, you get a bunch of players standing around gormlessly wondering what to do with themselves now that one thing has suddenly failed to lead to another. The problem is that, because the players can’t see the whole path laid out before them, they don’t have as clear a sense of progress as they might. But the victories they achieve in their ongoing adventures does provide a sense of accomplishment all the same. Dotted Line Epic Quests though can also leave the players feeling a little strung along, led by the nose, or lacking in agency. Not every player cares, but some will. Just a thing to be aware of. When they are well-executed, they are a lot of fun and easy to create and run, though. So there’s that.
A Gather the Ingredients Epic Quest is one in which the players need one or more THINGS to accomplish the Epic Quest. Generally, they know what things they need, even if they don’t know precisely where or how to find them. The THINGS, by the way, don’t even have to be literal things. I mean, in Legend of Zelda series, they are THINGS. But in Mass Effect, they are people. And they could even be pledges of support from various kingdoms in a unite the world against the forces of Ragnarok campaign. That’d be cool. The point is, the players have a checklist. And their adventures are primarily about checking off the items on that list. The advantage of a checklist is that the players can see the whole path and measure their progress. And, if you’re open-ended and let the players pursue some or all of the ingredients in whatever order they want, they can allow for a big feeling of agency. The disadvantage is how much planning you have to do.
See, the big secret is that you don’t have to plan out a whole campaign all at once. Not even an Epic Quest campaign. You can fill in details as the game goes on. Remember what I said about plot points way back in that article where I talked about plot points, they can always be expanded and inserted and deleted. But, in a Gather the Ingredients Epic Quest, there are certain plot points you have to work out in advance. Specifically, the checklist. You don’t have to know everything about them or write the adventures or anything like that. But once you tell the players they need the seven Balls of the Dragons or whatever; you can’t add an eighth or decide they only need six if you get bored.
And as a side note, because I’m sure someone will bring it up, you can allow the players to gather the Pieces of the Rod of Seven Pieces in any order because you don’t have to write the adventures in advance. Whenever I say something like that, someone always sputters about how the characters won’t be the right levels for the dungeons or whatever if they go out of order. And my response is always “why are you writing the dungeons that far in advance then?” And their response is something about how the world shouldn’t level with the PCs. And my response is usually to slap the s$&% out of them for thinking that D&D is a WORLD and not a GAME.
The two structures define how the adventures connect through the course of the campaign. And that’s the essence of building an Epic Quest campaign. Unless it’s that onion thing. We’re coming back to that. I swear. In the future. And when I say that’s the essence of building an Epic Quest campaign, I mean that. Frankly, it’d be the end of this article except for two little itty-bitty ways you can go astray. And we’ll end on those two really minor points.
The End of the Entire F$&%ing World
The first little, tiny, minor, practically insignificant way that your campaign can go astray is if your entire goddamned world gets destroyed. For some reason, GMs never plan for that. I don’t understand it.
Seriously, the first thing you have to consider is what happens if the PCs fail to accomplish their Epic Quest. Is that even an option? Can the PCs lose the campaign? Now, you might be tempted to say “no,” but there’s a problem with just not allowing failure to be an option. An Epic Quest campaign derives some of its power from a sense of exigency. This is especially true of Save the World type campaigns. To truly provide a sense of rising tension, the players have to believe the threat is real. And that means you have to spend some time during the game showing the threat. The villain’s influence has to spread. The world has to rot away gradually as the Terra Gaia remains imprisoned in Count Doomdark von Destruction’s Void of Eternal Imprisonment. That creates a sense of exigency. A sense that the party really does have to do the thing. And if they don’t do it soon, the will lose.
At the same time, I can tell you from experience that it isn’t very satisfying to spend two years in a campaign trying to save the world, failing at the last minute, and then having to listen to the GM gleefully describe the destruction of the world in exquisite detail. I mean, it was satisfying for ME, but the players were a little put-off.
So, what’s the solution? You have to pick your poison. But a good compromise is the Penrose Staircase as most famously depicted in M. C. Escher’s sketch Ascending and Descending.
The idea is that you don’t set too firm an endpoint on when everything is going to go to pot. That is, don’t demand that the six Triforks all be gathered before Rainuary 12th, 972 YFE or else the world will explode. Instead, just note that the demon lord is gradually growing in power. And occasionally show signs of his power. Just make sure each sign of his power is a little worse than the last, so there’s a sense of ratcheting up, but don’t ratchet up so fast that you can’t keep ratcheting up. And ratcheting up. And ratcheting up. Forever. And every so often, after the players win a major victory, roll back the signs a little bit, so they feel like they made some progress. The key is to just think of something that serves as a sort of indicator of the looming threat. Invading armies might occupy towns. Demons might attack in the night. Solar eclipses might blot out the sun. Comets might appear in the sky. Whatever. That sort of progress indicator is invaluable.
If you DO want to have a doomsday clock sort of thing going where the PCs really CAN lose – and I have done it, it really makes the players feel like the fate of the world is in there hands when it really IS in their hands – if you DO want a doomsday clock, don’t make it based on time. Instead, use the same sort of indicator of the current state of things as above, but put it on a point scale. Figure the demon lord’s influence starts at 0. At 10, Hell rips open and destroys the world. And increase it at set intervals during the campaign. But also allow the PCs to undertake quests during the game – side quests – that will roll back the clock. Let them defeat a demonic lieutenant or recover a sacred holy site or something like that. I’ll have more on this when we talk about Nemesis Campaigns. If I remember ever to do that.
Just make sure you have at least decided how you’ll handle urgency, rising tension, and what happens when the PCs f$&% up so badly the campaign is pretty much lost. And, if it comes to it, don’t be afraid to destroy the world.
Speaking of side quests…
Digressions and Distractions
Here’s the thing: an Epic Quest campaign – like any campaign – can start to feeling boring or overwhelming when the Epic Quest is all there is. If every adventure is just about descending into another ancient shrine to recover another ancient MacGuffin or every adventure is about just chasing Sephiroth through another town and dealing with another dismembered alien corpse part, the players are going to get worn out.
Now, the topic of Sidequests, Personal Quests, and Distractions (SPQ&Ds) is big enough that I want to devote an entire article to it in the future. But I have to mention it now because it is especially relevant when it comes to a campaign so tightly focused on a single plot thread. Which is what an Epic Quest campaign is. The thing is, Sidequests, Personal Quests, and Distractions help break up the monotony of the game, they help fill out the list of plot points between the beginning and the end of the campaign, and they give players the chance to pursue their own motivations. They are GOOD THINGS.
SPQ&Ds are adventures that aren’t directly related to the Epic Quest. They don’t offer the chance to Gather Ingredients. They don’t lead to the next point on the Dotted Line. Not directly anyway. They are side adventures. A Sidequest is an adventure that provides some useful benefit, something that does help the players succeed in some way. It might gain them an ally or a useful magical item or reveal some secret bit of information that might help. A Personal Quest is an adventure that gives one or more PCs a chance to make progress toward a personal goal. And a Distraction is an adventure that doesn’t do any of that. It’s just an adventure for the sake of adventure.
Apart from me saying these things are necessary – that you absolutely always want to have some of these things in your Epic Quest Campaign – I do have to point out that the balance between Primary Adventures, Sidequests, Personal Quests, and Distractions is heavily dependent on how urgent the campaign is. If the world is literally going to end tomorrow, any SPQ&D is going to feel kind of frivolous. It’s hard to justify spending a day exploring some random cave hoping for a few handfuls of silver when the armies of Hell are literally going to march across the world tomorrow. And pursuing your Personal Goal of reclaiming your family’s kingdom seems a bit selfish when the world is dissolving into a ball of chaos. AND MORE VIDEO GAMES NEED TO UNDERSTAND THIS ISSUE! HOLY MOTHER OF F$%&! “MR. WAYNE! WHY NOT STOP CHASING THE SERIAL KILLER YOU ARE LITERALLY ON THE TRAIL OF RIGHT NOW TO GLIDE THROUGH THOSE RINGS!”
Here’s the thing. In an Epic Quest campaign, the players tend to be focused on the quest at hand. They don’t take a lot of downtime, and they rarely stray from the campaign’s primary path to do a bunch of pointless errands. And that’s why you need to be aware of a few things. First, the more serious or urgent the campaign, the less players will want to handle Distractions. They might accept Side Quests. They might accept Personal Quests. But if there isn’t a good payoff that will help them win the campaign, they won’t want to do it. They’ll just end up feeling unmotivated. So, if your campaign is extremely urgent and time is running out, forget the SPQ&Ds. That’s okay. As campaigns get closer to the end, they tend to focus more and more on the primary storyline. That’s also why it’s a good idea to let the players resolve Personal Quests before things start making noises that sound like the climax is on the horizon.
Otherwise, if you’re running a Follow the Dotted Line Epic Quest – even an urgent one – you can slot SPQ&D in pretty easily as long as you put a gap in the Dotted Line. That is, don’t provide a lead to the next adventure during the current adventure. Leave the players flapping around at a loose end. And then insert an appropriate SPQ&D. Or, if you want to make the SPQ&Ds option, provide leads for both the SPQ&D and the next point on the Dotted Line at the same time and let them choose. And if you want them to lean toward the SPQ&D, make sure they know that opportunity will dry up. For example, if the party is in the City of Harborport and they discover that quarry headed for Capital City but they have an opportunity to recover the Sword of Definitely Killing the Bad Guy before they leave Harbor Port, they’ll probably take the chance. If the Sword of Definitely Killing the Bad Guy is in a completely different place and it’s in the wrong direction from Capital City, they aren’t going to fall for that crap.
If you’re running a very urgent Gather the Ingredients Epic Quest and the players are completely in control of the pacing and get to decide what goals to pursue; you’re never going to get them to do an SPQ&D unless it’s a Sidequest that offers something insanely valuable. Like that sword.
The point is SPQ&D are important. You need them for narrative pacing. But if you let the players control the pace and you make the quest too urgent, you’re never going to get the players to go for an SPQ&D. But, if things are just urgent enough – especially early in the campaign – without being desperate and the SPQ&D happen on the way and it’s just slightly more convenient to pursue an SPQ&D than it is to figure out the next point on the Dotted Line or where the next Ingredient can be found, the players will probably happy take some time off from saving the world to enter a gladiatorial tournament or a flightless riding bird race.
Just don’t expect them to spend six months breeding the damned mounts first. Or the gladiators. That would just be weird.