My D&D campaign is at an awkward place. We haven’t played in at least a month, a couple of my players may be moving away at some point in the near future, and (by my reckoning) we’re about midway through what I’m loosely calling “the main story”. I’ve rather enjoyed this campaign. I’d rather not see it cancelled mid-season. But how do I give it a shot in the arm it needs?
It’ll Rot Your Brain
I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to “big stories” — that is, long story arcs that encompass smaller ones. In this particular instance, I’m looking at episodic stories that repeatedly dip their story-toes into the same water throughout the season with the occasional deeper dive and a really totally SCUBA diver-suit metaphor for the finale.
If this sounds like how a lot of TV shows work to you, then it sounds like that to me too. That’s how my campaign is set up right now, too. The PCs are after something specific every adventure, but there’s a common thread linking each adventure. The problem is, of course, resolving this bigger story in a way that’s satisfying. I’ve seen a lot of popular TV shows handle this in ways that drive me crazy. Sometimes I feel like the writers wrote themselves into a corner and are forced into dropping the deus ex machina bomb. Sometimes the buildup to the climax is so amazing that the climax just feels empty. Sometimes the climax is stupid and I never want to watch the show ever again. Looking at you, Heroes season 1 finale.
Part of me thinks arriving at a good resolution to this campaign is an exercise in managing expectations. By that, I don’t mean that I should somehow try to keep the adventures leading up to my campaign’s climax from being more awesome than the finish. That would be silly.
Too Big, Too Fail
To be perfectly honest, when I say “managing expectations”, I’m not sure whose expectations I’m talking about. In a TV show, unless it’s a daily soap or something, generally the whole story is written well in advance and the audience can experience it and try to guess where it’s going. My players will have theories about where the story is going and hopes for where it will go, and so will I — except I have a greater degree of control over that, and my actions can then shape their expectations. Unless they don’t. And nobody knows anything for sure until it’s over. Tabletop roleplaying is weird, and I don’t know how we’re not all insane. Regardless, if there’s one thing I’ve seen go really wrong with both static and dynamic stories, it’s scope. Everybody wants everything to be epic. Pretty much every fantasy setting ever created has a cataclysmic event of some sort that Changes Everything (sometimes twice), and so many stories are about saving the world or the universe or the multiverse or multiple multiverses or….. <sigh> you get the picture.
I set my campaign up for something like this. I can still have it go there. I just really don’t want to. I’m not sure at what point in my life that turning up the volume, making the special effects crazier, and raising the stakes through the roof got boring for me, but it totally happened. I’m far more interested in seeing if a character can redeem herself in the eyes of her family, or if those two get together against all odds, or what happens to the town since that new mayor got elected. A big event for me is a good backdrop for these little ones, but the little ones are the crown jewels.
The other problem I’m having with a big event is that, though the PCs are getting more powerful and they have some cool items that do stuff, they are still relatively modestly powered. Don’t get me wrong, I like that. I like watching them struggling with and eventually overcoming what I throw at them. But having them square off against Tiamat in front of City Hall seems like it simply wouldn’t fit the campaign very well. I want the climax to fit. I want it to feel like the rest of the campaign, but more. Of course, the stakes will have to get raised eventually if I plan to bring the story to a climax. I can’t just have them stumbling upon the Big Bad in his lair in the middle of him brushing his teeth or something and having a mediocre fight everybody forgets. I want to make them freak out a little bit. I want to make them carewhat’s happening. Hopefully, I can do that without having to threaten the very fabric of space and time.
The Coming End
As I said before, I don’t know how many sessions I’m going to have to finish this story, so I think a game plan is in order. I need to figure out how the endgame is supposed to work — at least, how it would work if the PC’s didn’t get involved. I need to solidify who the pieces in this game are, and the win conditions. I also need to start laying out a more defined road toward that endgame for the players. Things need to start happening. Probably bad things. I think I’m going to try to work this climax-centric stuff into 3 sessions. That seems like enough time that a decent story could get told, and it could get done in a short enough time frame that my soon-to-be leaving friends could take part. If it turns out I have more time, I can flesh things out a little. When it’s over, I don’t necessarily think I want this campaign remembered for the monsters I threw at them or the narrow escapes. I want it remembered for the camaraderie and the teamwork and the creativity this group wields every single week. It’s already there for me, but it can be more.
It deserves a stylish, quality endcap that fits well. Time to make my Profession(Haberdashery) roll.