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I am in the process of preparing a D&D 4e campaign, which will be my first trip as a GM. It is not taking place in any pre-made D&D setting, but is heavily inspired from the background I read in my Dungeon Master's Guide, along with the many other fantasies I have read in my life.

The general idea is the following: Over two centuries after the collapse of the Great Empire, civilisation has barely begun to restore itself, and a new threat is rising. Savage hordes are lurking around the new kingdoms, growing bolder by the day, threatening to destroy once and for all the realms of men. The hordes, as the PCs will eventually discover, are led by this Orc mastermind whose goal is to make his race rise for barbarism into a new age of knowledge, where Orcs will be the center of civilisation, and humans a forgotten species downgraded to near animalistic state. The PCs will progressively discover this, and will eventually have to save the world, or side with the orcs if they want to, or really do anything relevant that they want to accomplish. In other words, my PCs, if they make it, will probably hold the fate of the world in their hands, to a certain extent.

But by giving it such huge proportions, I'm afraid to over-reach, create a campaign that is too heavy, and that will only difficultly integrate smaller details because of the shear size of it. On the other hand, I want to give my PCs a campaign that makes them feel like they have a purpose in that world.

How can I balance size with all of these other elements I mentioned in the previous paragraph? Should I really even get into such huge events?

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I would also look at the answers to How do I keep a long-range plot cohesive and coherent? –  gomad Mar 4 at 22:38

6 Answers 6

up vote 37 down vote accepted

Most campaigns don't reach their end

That's just the way it is. Doubly so for your first ever campaign. You might lose interest. So might your players. You might realize you don't know what to do with them anymore. Life might intervene. Things happen.

And that's ok. Fun would still have been had. Memories would still be formed. The world you create might become a place for a next campaign - or inspire you to make a new one. As banal as it sounds, you'll learn from your mistakes (and discover exciting ways to make different ones). Don't sweat it.

Here, then, is some general advice on running a lengthy campaign.

Break it up into acts

Knowing as you do it's likely to prematurely end, plan for that. Have several major acts that would provide some satisfying conclusion. 4e's tiers work well here, though it does depend on the pace of your game - how quickly the PCs will level.

Perhaps in the first act, the war with orcs is a straightforward affair - they invade human lands and defeating their force is the end goal. In the second act, paragon-tier PCs venture into orc lands instead, to discover how orcs have changed. They also witness humankind begin its downfall, and make a decision in the end on which side to favor. In the third act, epic-tier PCs engage with the mystical source of knowledge and civilization (God? Artefact?) and rewrite the nature of man and orc. At that point, mortal kings are beneath their concern, as they deal with cosmic forces themselves.

Don't save the cool things for later

Do you have an awesome idea? Use it now! Don't store it until the slightly more appropriate time two years from now. By then you'll either forget it, it'll become irrelevant, or you won't get there at all. Make each session fun, not a prelude for fun down the road.

Plot it out

You have an idea for what you want the campaign to be like. Use some of the tools developed by others to help you get there. 5x5 method or Dungeon World's fronts, for instance. It won't do you any good holding it all in your head - get it out on (virtual) paper.

Change it up

Those methods tend to say this, but it's worth repeating: if the game goes elsewhere - that's fine, too. Never be afraid to change your plans. Don't stick to the one true path.

Play the same game

This is what kills most campaigns - people play different games at the same table. Use The Same Page Tool to set common expectations. And always, always, always talk to your players.

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In addition to Magician's links for Plotting out the setting, I like this set of very basic twenty questions from Jeff's Gameblog: jrients.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/… –  high bandwidth Mar 4 at 7:54

Great epic campaign ideas are fantastic, but on their own, they don't make much of a game. From my own personal experience, great ideas can be a trap. My best campaigns have been almost entirely improvised, whereas my biggest campaign idea turned quickly into the worst failure ever.

Engage the players right now, not later

This is the most important thing at the start of the campaign. I had great plans for the future (not to mentioned a pretty cool history of the world), but nothing really cool to engage the players right now. It's a game. It needs to be fun right from the start, or they lose interest. And you might not even get to the end.

With orcs as the main theme, it makes sense to start with some orc attacks, which can be fine (though whether just combat works for your players depends on their taste!). Drop early hints that these are not your usual rampaging orcs. Perhaps they aim for libraries and other centers of learning (do they burn them to hurt human knowledge, or steal them for their own use?). Perhaps they use subtle, complex strategies. Perhaps they meet orcs that are surprisingly eloquent and intelligent (contrary to what they and everybody else knows about orcs), and yet wants them dead. Or maybe he has some far more cunning scheme, and leads the PCs down some seemingly helpful quest that will ultimately doom mankind.

Will the players reason with orcs? Will it blow up in their faces? Will they prove themselves to be far more brutal, unreasonable monsters than the orcs? Don't save all the good stuff until the end. The more good stuff you give them early on, the more awesome stuff will automatically develop for the rest of the campaign.

Don't plan plot. Plan encounters.

Plot is what automatically develops during the best campaigns. Planning it all out in advance is impossible, and trying will lead the players down a boring railroad. Instead, plan interesting encounters from which plot develops automatically.

Your idea to have them choose whether they should fight orc dominance or accept the now civilized orcs is great, but don't save that for the end. By the time you get to the end (if you ever get there), you'll have tons of other cool ideas. Lead with the cool ideas you have right now. Resolving those will lead to far more awesome ideas later, that you couldn't possibly have thought of up front.

The short term moral decisions

So my advice is: forget what plans you have for what fates the players hold in their hands later in the campaign, think about what decisions they will take early on (and worry later about how they impact the later parts of your campaign). Will they kill even the most civilized orcs they meet, thereby justifying the orcs' intention to wipe out humanity? (Would peace have been possible hadn't this band of adventurers so attrociously murdered so many orcs?) Or will they try to work with the orcs, thereby possible helping them with their unexpectedly subtle schemes? (Could the final doom have been prevented had they not trusted the orcs?) Whatever decision the players make, can drive the rest of the campaign.

The short term clues and puzzles

Of course moral decisions are only one of the levels on which to engage them. Puzzles, clues, gathering information, are another:

Drop lots of clues. Never be stingy with clues. Watch how they piece them together. That too can create new truths about your campaign world. Are the orcs mainly interested in centers of learning? Do they steal them or burn them? Do their seemingly random raids disrupt trade and communication, isolating human/demi-human nations from each other? What are the patterns? What are they looking for? These are pretty strategic in scope, and maybe more relevant later in the campaign, but early clues can be relevant early on, if orcs attack a library or raid a vital caravan. It's possible they're looking for something really specific, like a book on orc history or the orc psyche or something. Or some ritual or artifact that will make orcs smarter.

The short term fights

Of course it wouldn't be D&D without something to hit. What they're going to fight seems obvious: orcs. But where? And why? What's it about? What is at stake? Make them interesting. Use them to drop clues or make decisions. And it may be interesting to fight something other than orcs. Maybe they're not fighting the orcs directly, but other monsters (or people!) affected by the orcs, displaced by them, allied to them, being exterminated by them. That too can drop clues about what the orcs are up to.

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I guess the question is, does your vision require the players to get involved in the over-arching conflict at all? If so, you're going to need to do a lot to ensure they buy into one side or the other and to keep the clash of civilizations real and present for them almost everywhere they go. Reluctant players may consider this railroading.

On the other hand, it can make for a perfectly fine backdrop for a more sandbox-style campaign, occasionally poking through to affect what the PCs are doing without dragging them into the whole thing. For inspiration, you can look to a lot of great literature that deals with this: War and Peace for the Napoleonic Wars, Les Miserables for the Revolution of 1832, Tale of the 47 Ronin for Late Feudal Japan, season 2 of Downton Abbey for WWI, etc. The conflict is a fact of life, but whether PCs pick sides, try to profit, or just run away from the whole thing is up to them.

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I just want to build on what others have said here. Fist off, your campaign is NOT too big at all, in fact the way 4e describes it's tier system the "world saving" quest you describe is perfect for levels 11-20. (1-10 is supposed to be localized to a country or continent, 11-20 takes place on a global scale and 21-30 they suggest having your players participate on quests that take place in the multi-verse, ie going to the Astral Plane, the Fey Wild, the Elemental Plane, etc and solving major problems or "saving" those realms.)

Don't Save Ideas

While it's true you want to throw your great ideas at your players, some ideas won't fit where you are now. Is it feasible that a level 1 party who have yet to cut their teeth on any troubles would fight off an entire civilization? The orc story-line is great, but build towards it... maybe one of their quest lines is foiled by a small squad of orcs, and that sways them further to siding with the humans. If they are not human, maybe the humans in your campaign are highly racist, or with-hold technology from other races, the general tyrannical nature of humans might be enough to have them side with orcs.

Over all though I agree, throw all your good Ideas at the players as soon as possible.

Plotting and Follow Through

Having a plan is great but like others have said, you might not ever get to where you want to go. The same page tool linked in Magician's post is great! One thing I would like to mention is that I like to make the game focused on my players' characters. I ask my players to come up with back stories that include obtainable goals. For example, "My father left our family when I was young to search for an ancient family heirloom and never returned. now I am on a mission to find him dead or alive an bring him home." This short idea allows me as a GM to build clues into the world that directs them to a goal they are invested in right from the start. Then while they are doing that there are "unintended side effects"... which leads them into the over arcing plot.

For your story example, and the idea I had in the previous section combined with the aforementioned character bio your could seed the Orc plot like this: The heroes, while following the fighter's father to the resting place of a family heirloom, run into a band of marauding orcs. The Orcs are led by an angry chieftain who actively denounces human kind and attacks the group. During the fray the fighter's father is captured and the orcs escape." Now the party is again searching for the father character (but know where the heirloom is... magic item??) and has a reason to take sides in your campaign.

I am currently on my second try at telling a story like yours (players of mine are on this site so I won't spoil anything for them) that's all about "world saving". The first time around my group fell apart, this time my party has gone through a complete overhaul and I have had to start all over with new player back stories (this is where I cam up with the obtainable backstory plot idea). So as you can see it is very difficult to get players to follow the set story.

Definitely have the Orc-Human conflict in your world and mention it via NPCs hearing news about the war, etc. if nothing else it helps to make the world feel like a real place with things going on that are not focused on the players and what they are doing. Sure, maybe the group gets hot on the trail of a necromancer trying to ressurect a long dead god and they want to stop that, but NPCs still have problems, the tavern keeper is getting a divorce, a prominent noble they meet has a ill son who's doctor is incompitant, the orcs are trying to kill the humans once and for all, a drunkard roams the streets screaming about how his wife kicked him out again. All these things build out the world more than just what your players specifically need to finish what ever trouble they find themselves in.

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Regardless of how your campaign ends, the scope is too large if you don't know where to start.

The reason is pretty simple, that the progress of the campaign can almost (not quite, but almost) look after itself provided that you always have something to do next. If you have a compelling start to your campaign, then your campaign is compelling. This week :-) Nobody ever came out of a campaign saying, "well, each session was awesome but overall I'd rate it 'meh'". They could come out of a campaign saying, "meh, I know the GM had a great overall idea but we never seemed to make any progress towards it". So make sure that the low-level stuff at the start is valuable for itself, not just because it preceeds the world-rearranging stuff at the end. Like everyone says, it's also important to know that a lot of campaigns stop unexpectedly, and you want it to have been worthwhile if that happens.

That's not to say you can't do clever things with long-term plot and structures. You can and you probably will but hey, this is your first session of your first campaign, you can get to that later provided you sow a few seeds.

I've never known a problem integrating small details into something big. Small stuff happens. Not everything in your campaign will directly relate to the big stuff, but that's fine because the campaign as a whole isn't about the big stuff, it's about the path the PCs take through (and around, and sometimes obliviously under) the big stuff. As long as you know what the big stuff is, the small stuff settles in around it as you go.

I'd advise you firstly not to spend a lot of time on stuff that you aren't planning to use soon (because that's time you could have been spending on making this session good, instead of some theoretical session somewhere down the line). If you're the kind of person who wants to spend days at a time imagining and writing down your detailed world, and you have days more time available than you need to plan the game sessions, then you can go ahead with statting up some dog in a village that the players will probably never visit. Otherwise prioritise the people the players meet and the people who run the world.

Secondly, it would be useful to have some kind of option to super-speed the campaign in the event that your first plan turns out to be too long for your taste or that of your players. You could run the campaign you're describing in 10 years or (at a serious push) 3 sessions. Obviously the 3-session version doesn't have a lot of detail. You'd probably disobey the XP rules pretty severely by just assuming a lot of time and adventures have passed between the key events of the introduction, rise, and resolution of the threat. But to be honest you could even avoid that with some careful planning exactly how a bunch of low-level nobodies somehow have a key role.

So you need to choose the length to suit you and your players but nothing is too big unless it overwhelms you and prevents you starting.

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No plan survives first encounter with the enemy.
Your players will (generally) run off in the opposite direction of whatever bait you use to draw them into your scenario. Unless you are forcing them there, but hey, we all love being forced on adventures, right?

Know your map, know the NPC's in the region, have some information available for multiple quest carrots. Spending time looking through maps or notes saying "Hold on guys, give me a minute" really saps the immersion and erodes confidence.

Don't spill your guts the first session. Adventures can lead to clues. Orcs are after some fabled armor of Orc control. Why? The big bad Orc wants to use it to gather his forces, etc. Eventually the PC's can figure the clue out for themselves and decide if they want to stop this crazy wanna-be god-Orc.

Make it fun. Nothing sucks more than making your 3rd toon for the evening. Yeah stuff happens, get over it, but... Pretty soon you're going to have a mutiny if you are too vicious and niggardly with the loot. I'm certainly not advocating Monte Haul here, but hey a guy has to eat and wants to be a bloody hero once in a while. Am I right? :)

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