Gamemaster Tips from A “Master Game”

GMs want to tell an epic story for their players, but what makes an epic story? There’s different definitions of classical epics if you look around online, for example this online class has a form to show what the Elements of a Heroic Epic are and then there’s the characteristics of an epic here. Giving us other examples with similar overlapping views are this Idaho university and this Tennessee university. A lot of common threads are weaved through these examples.

Why am I talking about epics? I was watching Projared’s review of Chrono Trigger and was reminded that this game has lasted in top spots on video game charts for the twenty years it has been out. It is to many people a cornerstone in the video game storytelling and design. It is like looking at a list of the top 100 movies ever and seeing how a lot of them are classics back from the 1970’s and earlier.

What is it that makes Chrono Trigger such an epic RPG using those viewpoints from earlier?

  • The main character is a hero, who is often possessed of supernatural abilities or qualities.
  • The setting is grand in scope, covering nations, the world, or even the universe.
  • Involves deeds of superhuman strength and valor.
  • Gods or supernatural beings frequently take part in the action to affect the outcome

The main characters are the only ones who can use magic after the downfall, the setting involves time travel, they’re overcoming immense challenges and pushing themselves, all to beat Lavos with the aid of the planet itself. I think that hits all four of those points. Other bits in those examples talk about starting in media res, which it does since Lavos has been around forever. And then there’s the Epic Hero Cycle worksheet that talks about ‘The cycle must reach a low point where the hero nearly gives up his quest or appears defeated.’ and ‘A resurrection’, which definitely did happen in this game as well, and it was something that happened to a main character and it was one that you did not have to fix to continue playing the game to the end.

So, we have an epic story that stands the test of time but why is this important? Well, using ProJared’s game time as an example and looking online for more, 17-25 hours seems about the range most people fell into without going into extremes of level grinding or other such approaches. 17-25 hours to tell an epic story? That’s approximately one to two months worth of gaming sessions for most groups I’ve played in. Of course, tabletop combat isn’t as quick as it was in the game, so let’s inflate that to say three or four times the time to inflate for combat on the table. 75 to 100 hours, if your group meets once a week for 5 hours, that’s 20 sessions. My last groups would play for 8-10 hours, making that down to 10 sessions. Let’s even be generous and add a padding of 5 sessions to allow for longer combats, extended RP sequences, players deciding to go their own way, and players having no clue what to do. 15-25 sessions to tell an epic story?  I think that sounds about right, and as ProJared said they did it in a few key approaches:

  • The story doesn’t have any fluff, never deviating from the main objective.
  • The other character stories tie into the main plot themselves, keeping everything moving forward in parallel, never sideways
  • Every story moment is important, and because there are so few (in comparison to an 80 hour plus game), they are quite memorable.
  • Your actions have consequences that affect the game in both small and large ways
  • The character sidequests at the end of the game are optional, but they focus on the development of the characters.

These are key points for a GM to consider upon for their campaign design. Some people try to create an open ended world for the players to keep playing in all they want, but without some idea of the direction of your story, things are just going to stagnate as there is no driving force. It’s why a lot of writers will mention having an idea for the end of your story, so you know where you want your characters to work towards and know when you’re done writing. Just look at open-world games like Skyrim and GTA, or Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, you can choose where and what missions to do as the storyline expands, but there is a set end limit to where this will go to, to keep you from getting bored with the world.

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