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As a GM, often a fantastic ending to a campaign comes to me before I start it. In the Star Wars universe, I picture the heroes stealing a Star Destroyer from the Empire or, in D&D, I picture the heroes resurrecting an elder dragon.

Many times, campaigns are formed because of these inspirations... And my heroes never get to experience it because the campaign either takes on a life of its own or fizzles out. Or worst of all... I come up with something different.

How can I get low-level, beginning heroes to these endings? I feel that bringing such epic scenes early breaks realism, and I have no desire to begin a high level campaign. I'm trapped between that and the reality that planning out every plot detail from the beginning to the end is a waste of effort due to the effects of a campaign mentioned above.

Has anyone encountered this problem in the past and how has it been addressed?

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    \$\begingroup\$ My Star Wars campaign started, in the first adventure, with the players imprisoned on a Star Destroyer in battle, sabotaging and destroying it from the inside before escaping the wreck. It's pretty rare for an epic universe to fail because the heroes were too awesome. \$\endgroup\$ – Tynam Oct 17 '14 at 12:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ possible duplicate of When planning a campaign, should I know what the ending is before we start? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 17 '14 at 16:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is not a duplicate, though that might be a good XY guidance for him. He specifically asks how to do it, not whether to do it. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Oct 17 '14 at 18:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Read Shamus Young's DM of the Rings for a great example of how a preplanned ending can be completely, wildly, even outrageously inappropriate. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Oct 22 '14 at 3:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ As starting at a higher level seems like the obvious answer, but you've said you don't want to do that, could you elaborate on your reasons why not? \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Nov 17 '14 at 19:23
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Option One: Start Closer To The End

It's not actually cheating to start at a higher level, and that's a weird expectation that games don't bear out. The inclination to "make those bastards work for it" is not a helpful GM attribute. I really enjoyed playing Feng Shui for the first time when it came out because by specifically allowing the players to be badass from the beginning and encouraging the GM to not try to "put them in their place" or "meter their advancement" but to instead give them opportunities to be badass, it broke me of this exact negative habit. You know this option exists because you mentioned it - not wanting to do it is a personality disorder, get over it.

Option Two: Don't, Or At Least Be Opportunistic

Players really don't want to dance to your tune for a long campaign, as you've noticed. However, the turns they take can bring them close to your end setpiece - or at least, one of them. Keep a list of your "uber kewl ideas" and seed multiple of them. Don't think of it as "One campaign, one big payoff." If you have an idea for a dragon resurrection or an epic lich fight or or... Then just keep all of those ready, and whichever one the PCs seem to be approaching as they chart their own path, pull it out.

Option Three: Do An Immense Amount Of Work And Have Iron Determination

Having said that, I did run a 5 year long 2e campaign with a very specific end setpiece in mind, and we hit it. But it required not getting distracted by a new shiny thing, it required heavy player investment and a very large amount of prep and plotting by me every single week. And I let the players range wildly out on their own paths, and then hooked them in very carefully so that they were all super motivated to get to the same end setpiece. It sounds like this is what you're trying and not able to do, so I'd swap to options 1 or 2 (as I do nowadays since I'm not a yute with infinite time on my hands anymore).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree. Seeding multiple (all) of the big plots ensures that something awesome will happen. And hopefully, frequently. \$\endgroup\$ – Thane Brimhall Oct 17 '14 at 22:56
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I get conflicted intentions here. You want to start "low-level" (which can mean many things) and you want to see the heroes reach this epic ending. So you want both the epic journey and the super cool finale but you're impatient.

Forget the "low-level = beginning" paradigm of video games (and usual games)

In Star Wars, no major character on screen is level 1. Anakin in The Phantom Menace might be, but he's a very boring character to play if you ask me. The cool guys are Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. And they are not level 1. I get the idea that you want to start at the beginning and see progression but you don't have to start with the training of Obi-Wan when he was a kid. Adjust the starting level based on what is important for the beginning of the story. If you think it would be cool to have the party face a massive demon invasion from a portal right in the middle of the little town (that would kickstart the epic journey of a group of survivors who could then travel to the 9 hells). They don't need to start level 1. Start them at a level where the demons are still a threat but they can handle them a little (if not repel, contain so people can flee). You have a story in mind, you don't have to align with what's considered the beginning in the mechanics. Hell you could start a game level 20 and jump to different levels and moments in time and space (in form of flash backs). Linearity is cool but never mandatory.

The end is likely to be different than what you envisioned

This is due in part by the actions of the PC that could completely derail the story. What if Frodo was killed in the first encounter with the Uruk-Hai? It's tempting to steer the players in the direction you want (towards the epic ending you have in mind) but trust me, it's just frustrating for players. Actions should have consequences so if no matter how bad Frodo rolls the orcs never kill him, it's just fake and boring. Don't forget that as a GM, you're also playing the game. You have different rules and a more complicated role at the table but being surprised by your players is, to me, the best thing in the world. What if the players are not interested in capturing the Super Star Destroyer and instead sacrifice themselves and try to get Darth Vader on them so two young rebel soldiers can do it? Also, if the game last more than 4-5 sessions its likely that something will inspire you a different ending and you might want to change it. Don't work too hard on the ending. Keep the idea large and the players will handle the details.

My personal experience

So I started this game of Mutants and Masterminds and I wanted the players to be teenagers at a school and eventually the most powerful mind controller ever would arise and threat the city. The game lasted for a while (I eventually included a SHIELD equivalent entity to give the players a mentor before they were mostly reading their hot teacher's mind and messing with bullies) and I pictured the campaign ending with the players combining their powers to break the control of the BBEG on them but wait...one of the players decided to rally with him. WHAT THE ACTUAL FIREFOX. I didn't tell him no. I didn't say "You can't do that". The players were mad (but the same way you're mad when your favorite character dies in Game of Thrones). The game ended up with a crushing victory from the BBEG and his new acolyte. My players are still talking about it. Let the game and players dictate the ending. The GM deserves to be surprised too.

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I get the sense that you have a very specific story you want to tell. I do hate giving this advice, but if you have a beginning, middle, and end in mind, perhaps you should write a novel instead of running a game. It will be more artistically satisfying for you, in those cases.

However, if you really want to run a game that meets a particular end, some things you might try include

  • Starting the game with mid-to-high level characters, and getting right to the ending. The campaign will be shorter, but it will get you to the end
  • Playing the story in flashback
  • Getting your players to agree to limit their actions from things that will cause the ending to not happen.

The latter two requires quite a bit of player buy-in, but if your players are into it, then they can work.

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Lead With the Cool Stuff

You don't have a system tag and you're posing a question that spans genres, so I assume you have freedom to choose a system. So choose a system that empowers your choices and start with awesome.

Systems like Fate Core and GUMSHOE assume competent PCs from the get-go.

Some systems let you scale your PCs to the plans you have, like GURPS. Need 400 point starting PCs? OK, that's what you start with.

Some systems just expect awesome as a baseline, like Dungeon World.

So pick a system that doesn't make a starting character a fragile, meager thing, and lead with the cool stuff!

Your plight is not uncommon. Here's what I would do:

  • Pick one of those great scenarios
  • Choose a system to support it - Fate for either, or Dungeon World for the fantasy. I love GURPS but I wouldn't choose it for this, I would want something faster. That's just me and my present tastes. If you want GURPS, you might choose one of the focused lines, like Dungeon Fantasy for the speed and simplicity.
  • Start your scenario as close to the great idea as you can. For the Star Destroyer - take a page from Lady Blackbird and start the PCs imprisoned on the Star Destroyer with some clue that tells them that stealing it is possible.
  • LET GO. Your job is to provide "potential energy" - tension in the situation, awesome waiting to happen, and just push. Get the action moving, and then get out of the way. You can't be too married to your outcome, you have to let the players run with it.

EDIT: In response to Thane's comment: Over the years, I've responded to the idea that "you can do that in any game" with System Does Matter more times than I can recall. And it does matter. It really, really does.

System informs gameplay. That's why different games feel different from one another. If your system is designed to make first level characters die a lot, but you let them pull off impossible, awesome deeds, you are working around the system instead of with it. If the system is designed to be gritty and harsh but you don't want to play in that version of reality, you will be playing despite the system, instead of because of it.

There are a number of systems that assume highly competent, dangerous, and durable starting characters ready to jump into scenarios like the question posited. Furthermore, the question starts with an assumption that systems where those things are not assumed are the only kind there are.

Perhaps I did not make this explicit enough before:

Has anyone encountered this problem in the past

Yes, thousands of groups and GMs and players have found themselves in precisely this situation. They look at the cover of a book and see huge, glorious, adventurous scenes unfolding and think they would like to play that. Only to find that by the rules of the game, they won't be playing anything that cool for years. Unless they follow the rule that says, feel free to ignore these rules.

and how has it been addressed?

It's been addressed, in part, by people throwing away the rules and designing rulesets with the intention of enabling the kind of play you are describing. There are a lot of games out there made to play this kind of game. Here are some more off the top of my head:

  • Leverage / Cortex Plus
  • Feng Shui
  • HeroQuest

There are others that would be poor choices for this style of play (not poor choices in general! These are awesome games!):

  • King Arthur Pendragon
  • Adventurer, Conqueror, King
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st / 2nd editions
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with "Lead With the Cool Stuff", though I don't think it's an issue about the system. There's plenty of awesome things even low level characters can do in virtually any game, if the GM is clever enough. \$\endgroup\$ – Thane Brimhall Oct 17 '14 at 22:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThaneBrimhall - see answer for my rebuttal \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Oct 19 '14 at 22:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I still can't say I totally agree, but thanks for addressing my concern directly. That deserves a massive +1 from me. I suppose I am that GM you mentioned who ignores rules whenever I can make things cooler. \$\endgroup\$ – Thane Brimhall Oct 19 '14 at 23:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThaneBrimhall - I do too! But for a long time now, I have been more interested in games that tend to create the play I want. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Oct 19 '14 at 23:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @gomad Thanks for the frank comment, I have deleted my answer now. What I did not exactly understand: What contains Tim B. answer which mine is lacking ? \$\endgroup\$ – Thorsten S. Oct 21 '14 at 2:00
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Your problem is that you have a certain end in sight, but don't have control over all the agencies that need to come together to reach that end.

The exact same situation exists in much smaller scales, for example if you have an encounter where the players need to get past two guards. You plan out a whole back story, where they go and talk to the guard's families and discover one of the guard's daughters was killed by the king, and then talk to the guard at the tavern and get him to agree to sneak them inside, and it will be all deep and meaningful and yada yada...never gonna happen.

This is a role playing game, it's about enabling the players and allowing them to think through and around problems. They might decide not to pass the guards, they might fight them, charm them, turn invisible, find a monster and let it lose nearby as a distraction, etc.

It doesn't matter how they approach solving the problem - what matters is that they and you have fun as they do so.

By planning endings and circumstances you are falling into an easy trap. You are planning events, and those events may well be epic, but you have no way of controlling whether those events will actually happen the way you want unless you somehow railroad your players into it. Constantly dragging players back to doing what you want them to do rather than what they want to do is not fun for either you or them.

Instead set up situations, set up circumstances, and then be prepared to go with what the players decide.

There are two guards blocking your path. That's the circumstance. Everything from there depends on what the players want to do. Do they sneak, do they investigate, do they fight, or spy, or resort to magic? Take what the players do, run with it, and make something epic from that. I've had far more epic results that I could never have planned ahead of time come from this approach, and at no point did I have to force the players to go the way I wanted them to go.

Resurrecting an Elder Dragon, Stealing a Star Destroyer. Those are epic moments, and you should certainly provide those opportunities - but if the players decide to lure Darth Vader on board the Star Destroyer and then activate the self destruct. That's just as epic but now both you and they are surprised. Role-playing games are telling a story, and it's more than just one person doing the telling.

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The way I do this is with revelations. Basically, plot twists that act as way points, changing the players' understanding of the situation incrementally, acting as a chain of connected accomplishments that also inform next steps. In programming parlance, it's a linked list. Each location has both a value, and the address of the next member of the linked list.

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Don't assume you know which campaigns will go long

Assume that most campaigns will be fairly short, and you'll only ever run one or two which are a massive 1st-level to max-level epic. Plan accordingly.

For a short campaign, what will make it awesome? Probably that's playing with mid-level characters, enough to experience some of the epic things you have in mind. Assume you have a choice between "lev1-lev5" or "lev5-lev10" or "lev15-20" etc, which will be most fun? Do that.

Don't push the cool stuff to some unspecified future, nor drop it on the players without justification, pitch the level of the players so it's about within their normal abilities and then go for it.

Plan loosely in the medium term

Even for a short campaign, don't assume you'll get exactly the set pieces you expect. Set up the potential for several of them. Give the players a goal. And then go with where the campaign seems to be going.

Plan loosely in the long term

Keep at the back of your mind, "if this short campaign becomes an epic sequence of low-level characters becoming galaxy-spanning legends, what would be climaxes"? But don't waste time planning in detail, assume things will change as you go along.

Don't get hung up on the cool idea

You have a cool idea, and it gives rise to a cool campaign... Awesome campaigns are born from LOTS of cool ideas, where you have to discard most of them, often including the original one, keeping only what fits together well and seems most fun. Your cool idea got you started, that's fine, that's how it's supposed to work.

Don't ask, "how can I make this happen in the end". Ask "how can I have a campaign with more awesome moments like this" And it sounds like you're doing pretty well on that already.

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