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I've seen "pulp" used more and more to describe the opposite of the cataclysmic trope whereby a campaign has arch-villains threatening to destroy the world. It's not hard to see what a lot of people like that. Stakes can be much lower and that helps it feel more organic and special to some. For example, I personally like it when the stakes are comically low: as simple as "letting the villagers down" or "losing a trinket from your inventory that the goblin stole if you can't find him".

Perhaps it's that because the stakes are so small that it rallies the players, getting them in the mindset: "we can do this. In fact it will be terrible if we can't do such a simple thing."

Whatever the case might be, I think what tends to happen is that most campaigns only start out as pulp. Over time, the nature and difficulty of the story arcs grow with the players. That seems very reasonable. By way of anecdote, the highly-acclaimed show Critical Role tends to be very pulp-heavy, lot's of encounters with only the smallest hints of wider implications. However, Critical Role tends to eventually build up into something cataclysmic.

Question

Still, is there precedent for pulp-only campaigns well into the "end-game"? I'd be curious to see how one would tie a bow on a pulp-only campaign or what one should turn to in order to substitute away from giant boss battles in favor of something else that is equally gratifying.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When you ask for precedence, are you referring to in official adventures, published content, or private campaigns? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26, 2023 at 2:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron Any or all would help in a way; or maybe private campaigns if we feel it's too broad. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26, 2023 at 3:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not really sure what kind of answer you're looking for. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Jun 26, 2023 at 4:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Novak What the question attempts to get at is: Can a pulp-only campaign stand on its own? (where the stakes are low throughout, the world is never threatened and likely little to no big boss encounters). That's what my colloquialism "tie a bow" on a campaign entails, sorry if it wasn't clear. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26, 2023 at 4:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ The problem is rather that dnd of all editions gets insanely powerful at mid to high levels. Other RPGs start powerful, get a tiny little bit better over time and never really have an "end game". In those, it is perfectly normal that the characters have normal goals for themselves. Or maybe solve a crime, not the Bond style comic villainy of dnd. \$\endgroup\$
    – nvoigt
    Jun 27, 2023 at 4:57

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Powerful beings can continue to have petty concerns

Consider Rhialto the Marvellous, the last of the Dying Earth books by Jack Vance. Rhialto and his fellow arch-wizards easily cast high-level spells like Time Stop, casually journey to the edges of the universe or back in time, and generally have nothing to fear from typical D&D menaces like monsters and would-be dictators. Instead, their conflicts consist of trivialities like the disposition of a fine bottle of wine from another plane.

You might allow your players to become very successful as the game progresses, becoming high-level characters who rule a kingdom, are the master of the forest, or control powerful magics. Then, rather than challenging them to defeat a series of increasingly world-shattering villains, introduce other NPCs who are their peers. These characters have their own goals which sometimes conflict with the party, but they aren’t mustache-twirling villains. Now you can have ordinary low-stakes interpersonal conflict, but at high level.

For instance: maybe the party Fighter, now level 19 King Fighter of Fightopia, had his summer home built on the scenic slopes of Mount Apocalypse. The next year he takes a week off from his kingly duties to relax at the cabin, only to find a tame Tarrasque wearing a saddle demolishing the entire mountainside. The Tarrasque is breaking ground for King Jerkface, who plans to strip-mine the mountain for Unobtanium. The party engages the Tarrasque in combat, only to be suddenly banished to the Nine Hells by Jerkface’s court wizard, a lich. Can the party escape Hell and defeat the Tarrasque in time for King Fighter to enjoy his vacation?

You “tie a bow” around a game like this with that most rare of D&D conclusions: just let the PCs rest on their laurels. Let them sit on the balcony of the wizard’s Magnificent Mansion, overlooking the Forest of Mystery that the Druid protects, enjoying the bard’s latest epic lyre ballad as they watch the sun set.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ahhh, that's fantastic! Epic sorcerer rivalry to secure a rare bottle of wine flips the script in a really fun way. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28, 2023 at 1:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Them being so high status also explains why they're not "nuked" so to speak: for their peers it would ruin their reputation if they killed anyone over such petty things \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 28, 2023 at 11:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was trying to gather my thoughts on an answer for this question but didn't feel like I had enough information to actually put it out there, but this basically covers my thoughts. I distilled it down to "the stakes don't have to be high if they are important to the characters". \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Jun 29, 2023 at 4:21
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You don't need a cataclysm

I've run campaigns that did neither revolve around the world ending, nor around a big bad arch-foe. In fact they were mostly strung together from independent adventures from Dungeon magazine, with a bit of glue to connect them. This works perfectly well.

What you do need, are of course level appropriate challenges and obstacles. And the kind of creatures you need to battle in tier 4 are those that are so powerful they can have a big impact on the game world.

It also helps to have a "red thread", a connecting and motivating storyline, to help with moving things forward and to provide meaning, but it's not a must. A group that is happy to solve individual adventures and rack up treasure and rewards in doing so, while becoming more powerful does not need it to have fun.

In my experience, what is more of a challenge for a very high-level campaign is that the game is better balanced around tier 1 and 2, and few published campaigns provide material for high tier 3 or for tier 4 adventuring. So you’ll have a lot of work if you want to go there. It is simpler to retire the campaign somewhere in tier 3 and start over again.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I always felt cataclysmic story lines to be..."corny" would probably be the word. A kind of "uh, here we go" feeling that immediately precedes the return of disbelief. (But obviously all of this is down to personal preference.) \$\endgroup\$
    – biziclop
    Jun 26, 2023 at 7:58
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Let the campaign be a small part of a bigger picture.

It is possible to run a mostly "pulp" campaign into high tiers, but you may need to put in quite a bit of work into homebrew.

I have run a campaign like this into tier 4, where "pulp" was a regular feature. I would have happily run it right up to level 20 but we had to fold because it was an in-person campaign and several people moved away.

The higher-end published campaigns often set the story so that the PCs can potentially become the heroes of the story and sometimes even "save the world".

In our campaign there was a potential cataclysm but that was the story line of the world setting itself.

The PCs realised early on that the were a speck of sand in this vast setting as the the creatures who were at odds with each other where like demi gods and their struggle with each other was ancient spanning to times immemorial. In fact, they were the same creature with different aspects: one sub-race aligning themselves with life, the other with death. I built quite a bit of fun lore into this.

This meant that there were communities of beings in the world setting siding with one or the other. But, there were also others that were quite neutral and seeing that both were necessary and that it all as an on-going natural struggle. They met this view when they came across a "copse" of hermit druids.

To give an example, the Merfolk in one region and the Kuo-Toa were at odds. The PCs chose to help out the Merfolk village to take down a Kuo-Toa high priest in a small part of the world. They decided that was their main goal. It was quite organic as I gave them various options to follow and was creating content as we went along - in between the sessions mostly.

Along the way, I set various other stories where, for instance, they helped a Halfling that got lost at sea, liberated a little tribe of Flumph from a young blue dragon, investigated why the villages in a region were all "going werewolf". There was a lot of pulp - in fact, that was the main part of the campaign.

During their first 5 levels, they saw the bigger picture and realised that the story line would happen over millennia and had been happening for much longer than that. They would not see the end result of this as their PCs would long be dead, gone and forgotten by then. So, they relaxed into the campaign and made choices based on where their curiosity took them. It took quite a bit of work and not all my "pulp" mini stories were followed - which was ok. Sometimes, I just adapted them into for higher levels.

I had a couple of players that enjoyed working things out, so I built detective story lines, complex traps, puzzles and riddles. In the mini story line about the Flumphs, I introduced a magical barrier in a big cave system with an unknown language etched in monoliths. To pass they worked out they had to read out the coded message. So they went off to explore the monoliths and worked out the secret alphabet. They decoded the message. But, to pass the barrier they had to say it out loud. So I got them to actually read it out loud. I purposely turned it into a fun tongue twister. There was a time pressure too, as once they activated the magical code they only had a few minutes to get through or else the gas cloud would kill the PCs. I used a sand clock, turned it and said: you have 2 minutes to get through. It was a lot of fun.

I tend to go back to the Know Your Players section in the Introduction of the Dungeon Master's Guide. I asked them out-of-game what sort of adventures they liked. Some told me later on because they were new to D&D and I adjusted accordingly my prep for our next play sessions.

I think the way we had to orgainse our meet-ups helped in some way, too. We all had quite a few life commitments so we could only meet once per month - but for a whole weekend. We played 8-10 hours both on Saturday and Sunday and had lunch, snack and dinner breaks. I think this helped as I had a month to create content and stories.

There was also a fair amount of spontaneous deviation from the story line, so they kept me on my toes. It helped that I asked them to keep track of the story lines. At the beginning of the play sessions, the scribe read out a summary of what had happened in the last session and we went from there.

On a practical note, I've found that for homebrews it can be helpful to use a random adventure generator to generate ideas. I used the donjon website. I did not follow what was mentioned to the "T" but it worked well. I normally did have to tone it down though, e.g. if it talked about "an epic battle of clashing armies", I made it about helping out a small squad by getting them some food supplies.

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It depends on what you mean by end-game and pulp.

This is not a frame challenge, but its worth noting that there are other definitions of "pulp" when it comes to stories. You seem to be defining pulp as "relatively low-stakes".

This is a fine definition, but not the only or even most common definition. Pulp fiction got its name from the cheap paper it was printed on. It was generally characterized by works written quickly by low paid authors, though this does not mean it was necessarily bad. Many prominent authors in the early 20th century published partially or even primarily in the pulp magazines including H.P. Lovecraft of the Cthulhu Mythos, Robert E. Howard of Conan the Cimmerian, and Walter B. Gibson of the Shadow.

Its true that by the standards of modern high-level DND, most of those stories were comparatively low stakes, but that was true of most stories that pre-date high level DND play (and even now, stories where the world or more is at stake are rare even in high fantasy and super-hero stories compared to stories where the stakes are a city or smaller...). The historical pulp magazines helped establish and popularize proto-superhero stories, weird fiction, science fiction, and space opera. DND itself probably wouldn't exist without them.

But taking pulp to mean relatively low stakes, then the question becomes what do you mean by end-game. It is hard to have a low-stakes DND campaign at level 20. Any threat capable of challenging a full party at level 20 has at least the potential to threaten the world or even beyond. This is by design. 20th level characters are explicitly supposed to be among the "Masters of the World". A threat to a master of the world should be able to threaten at least the world.

But that doesn't mean you can't have a satisfying campaign that reaches a real and satisfying conclusion at lower levels. Most campaigns that start at level 1 after all do not reach level 20.

Instead, establish some sort of end game goal, even if only your in mind as the DM, and declare that your players have won when they reach that. It might be rescuing a loved one, or freeing a kingdom from a threat. Whatever it is, once they achieve that, the characters retire successfully having achieved their goal and likely having enough money to live a lifetime and stories to tell their grand-kids.

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    \$\begingroup\$ None of the authors you name were alive in the early 19th century. I think you meant to easy early 20th century or early 1900s? \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Jun 26, 2023 at 21:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM Yes, I made a mistake. I meant early 20th century. I'll edit, thanks. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26, 2023 at 22:22
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The general idea is to still have creatures and forces far more powerful than the players, no matter how far they progress.

This is not the best fit for most D&D 5e settings where players appear to regularly ascend to godhood*, but it's not impossible.

Once you have that basic setup, there are many ways the story can play out, my personal favourite is when the PCs play a crucial but unspectacular role in how big events play out.

In one story we played, they got to foil a massive covert operation by an (evil) empire that had been launched as a prelude to all-out war. This was only possible because most of their adventures up to that point had been inconsequential on a large scale. Sure, they had fought powerful monsters in remote places but didn't take part in very public, very world-changing campaigns that would've made them well-known.

In the end the war still happened and there was nothing they could do about that but their actions did tip the balance in the defenders' favour.

So afterwards, while they were richly rewarded and celebrated by those in the know, for the average villager they were still just a bunch of shady individuals whose arrival would prompt everyone to lock up their "valuables".

Of course this is on the extreme end of low key, it doesn't have to play out this way. The world is big and just because you achieved a big thing in one part of it doesn't mean the rest of it is affected or even cares.

Furthermore, powerful antagonists don't have to always strive to rule the whole world, in fact most of them probably won't and will "play it safe" by trying to exert stronger but more localised control. Having them have a more diversified set of motivations often naturally leads you to avoid cataclysmic story lines.

*Okay, that one is not true but it might as well be.

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