Monday, January 23, 2017

Monday Recap: The End of Evil

OG Princes of the Apocalypse
No recap for my Storm King's Thunder campaign this week, we had an off week.

Instead, I'm going to do a full-campaign review in honor of the completion of one of my long-runner monthly campaigns. This past weekend, my Horsemen of the Apocalypse quest came to an end. It began when took a group of a few of my regulars and put together an epic-level evil campaign set in the Abyss. It took quite a bit of putting together, and I wanted to go over a few of the ideas and lessons I came away from the campaign with.

The (Relatively) Good


Backstory and Research


Together We Ride (best track from the Fire Emblem OST)
When I started this campaign, I knew it was going to be a story-driven game. I didn't want to just run through the layers of the abyss as though they were a dungeon, but I also wanted to show off one of the most dangerous locales in the multiverse.

So, I took two paths to prepping for the campaign. The first was to write a deep, interconnected story about the characters, bringing their stories to the forefront. I had each player write a short backstory (although some players went a lot further than others) and tried to incorporate the "known" stories into the campaign while keeping a good amount of "unknown" story. Without explaining all the details, the characters were thrown into an unfamiliar situation and learned about it over the course of the campaign.

The second path was to research the Abyss itself. The DMG, MM, and the Forgotten Realms Wiki were all very helpful, as was the appendix to the Out of the Abyss module. Later in the campaign, I began to use the information on Graz'zt from Powerscore as well as the 5e versions of Epic Monsters built by Dave2008 on the Enworld Forums to expand my information. In the end, I also took a lot of inspiration form the Dark Souls games in terms of setting the tone of the game. It took quite a bit of work, but I feel that it was worthwhile.

In the future, I hope that I can create this level of detail for my homebrewed campaigns. I would love to build worlds as thought-out and complete as the Abyss, but that may take a while to do!

Creating Unbreakable Bonds

It's the End of the World as we know it...
One of the problems in running an evil campaign is letting the players work together in a natural way. Evil is necessarily selfish and greedy, running a campaign with characters who couldn't compromise on their evil-ness was a big challenge. In the end, it took a session or two but I think I created a game where the players could work towards a single goal but remain selfish and evil.

The way that I did this was by treating the group as a single entity that could act selfishly and evil. In story terms, this meant creating a soul-binding mechanic between them that wasn't able to be broken, while simultaneously giving them various enemies that hated them as a group. There were no solo missions, no rivals that singled out a particular PC (except coincidentally). This was particularly effective when they lost the protection of their "master" halfway through the campaign. Suddenly they had incentive to work together, to protect each other, to fight on each other's behalf.

Changing the Direction of the Campaign

Pose for the glamour shot!
One moment that stood out as a turning point in the campaign (and indeed, was heavily discussed as a favorite moment of the campaign in the aftermath) was when the players betrayed their master and killed him. At that point, I had planned out an entire war-like campaign that ended with an epic battle against a Demon lord and the conquering of the Abyss by the group and their master. But all of that changed when the players decided to turn on their master.

I had put a lot of work into the planning, but in the heat of story it felt like the right time for the players to take charge. It meant rewriting the entire campaign, but fortunately I had a full month to do it. And in the end, I think it was the right choice. It was an epic climax, which allowed me to keep pushing the tension higher, just in a different direction than planned.

Different Ways to Play


Ain't no grave can hold me down
One thing I knew I would do going into this campaign was try different ways to incorporate challenge into the game. This included doing physical and building challenges at the table, player on player combat, epic level spells and monsters, and games without combat. These met with various success, but the biggest hit was using Slack forums to perform downtime activities.

Once the players had enough power to build their own layer of the Abyss, we had a lot of work to do. By structuring the timeline on a forum, we were able to build a very rich world, without sacrificing game time. Another boon was the use of "Slackbot" to act as a die roller. With a way to generate random numbers in the board, there's nothing stopping us from doing an entire campaign on forum.

I realize this isn't a new idea, but for my first foray, I thought it went quite well.

Slow Information Reveal
Four horsemen and their weird baby-slave Charlie
I mentioned above that I had written a complicated and mysterious story to kick off the campaign. I don't think I had told all of the secrets of the story until the very last game, and I think that kept the players thinking and guessing about the nature of their campaign until the end.

Part of that is building a story that has enough depth to explore for a while. I like using the "3 Why's" rule to develop the story. Come up with a cool concept, then explore why that concept exists. Then ask why those reasons exist, then do it a third time. By that point, you likely have a story that has the depth and backstory to fully explore over many sessions.

Short Campaign
This game was only 8 games. Since I only had one plot thread, I think this was just about the perfect length. We had no games that were off the plot thread, we had no alternate plot threads to explore, and there were very few NPCs that lasted the entire campaign.

The downside to this length of campaign was that it was difficult to do as an epic-level campaign. The players gained multiple levels every session, and gained additional powers of my own invention. It was a lot to take in. If I had done this over, I would have started the players at a higher level. I think the only thing that saved the group from floundering in their long lists of features was the time between sessions. Having a whole month to absorb a set of abilities offset the large amount of new abilities.

Lessons Learned


matchack.deviantart.com
Can't run a wild campaign without breaking a few rules
Of course, there were some things that really didn't go well at all.

Demigod System
To create the epic-level feel of the characters, I created my very own Demigod system. It turned out to be fairly unbalanced towards offensive power, and the players could kill things easily but would get wiped out by those same creatures in a combat that lasted longer than a couple rounds.

I have been tweaking the system I wrote, and I will be posting it up next week as my Wednesday article. I think it still has a ways to go, but I'll also submit some of the potential alterations I would include if I used it again.

Epic Level Monsters
Once I realized the imbalance of the Demigod system, I should have realized that going up against truly powerful epic-level monsters would not go well. It was true, even at their most powerful, the party fell to one of the epic-level monsters, their first total defeat.

I think fixing the Demigod system will help in the future, the system has already gained quite a few updates since we built the characters for this campaign.

Custom Races/Weapons/Archetypes

Not pictured: A centaur, draconion, or halfling. Pictured: a scythe.
For each character, I built a custom, homebrewed option for the player to take into the campaign. This ended up being a mixed bag, and showed me that I still had a long way to go in terms of building homebrewed items/races. The stats were sometimes powerful enough to change the game, and other times were completely forgotten.

Using Unwinnable Challenges
A few times in the campaign, I had the players roll a saving throw or fight out a combat that they had no chance of winning or beating. In a normal campaign, I would never do such a thing, but I wanted to let the players know there were still beings far more powerful than them. Unfortunately, the rule of a regular campaign held up even in an epic level campaign.

See, when a die hits the table, you've made a contract with the player. There has to be a roll on that die that succeeds. It doesn't matter how epic the campaign is, or how powerful the foe is. This contract is between the DM and the player, not the world and the character. If there's no hope, no dice are needed. And of course, if there's no challenge, no dice are needed either. I found out that this applies no matter what campaign I am running.

Final Thoughts



A modern take on the Horsemen? That's a Good Omen
At the end of the campaign, we all went around the table and said our favorite moments of each other player. That means each player complimented each other, and each player gave me their favorite moment of the campaign that I had written. This was a very revealing exercise.

The players, of course, gave about the compliments that you would expect players to enjoy. Funny moments, epic damage or attacks, cool role-playing moments, etc.

When it came to favorite plot moments, however, they all had the same theme. It wasn't just cool plot moments, it was moments where the players had a hand in shaping the direction of the campaign. They loved building their Abyssal layer on the Forum, they loved taking control of the campaign by killing their master, and they enjoyed the final scene of the campaign, where they decided to build an entire multiverse that bent to their will.

In the end, D&D is about the freedom to play a character, the agency to affect a world. Those moments are what people love, because it invests them in the world. Their choice made a difference, and everyone else has to follow along.

Overall, it was an excellent evil campaign. I still have lots to learn about epic level campaigns, though, and plenty of time to practice. But for an evil campaign, I couldn't have asked for a better story, group dynamic, and camaraderie.

Maybe I'll do another evil campaign on a smaller scale. But I will definitely be doing another epic level campaign, and hoping to fix some of the issues that plagued this story.

My Little Horseman
Thanks for reading!

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