You've set the hook, the players are on the line and aimed for the end, now how do you reel them in?
Start with the high level plan you made: What is it the players are after that should be the focus point of the end game?
If it's a Greed hook, is it a legendary item? Maybe they want to rule the world? Perhaps, they just want a country? If it's Revenge, is the enemy truly a challenge for the end game? Glory had better be something to go down in the history of the game world. If it's Knowledge, it should be something that only the party will know when the end game is over. Whatever it is, it has to be something characters of the suspected end can achieve. In Dungeons & Dragons, it better be multiverse changing, in World of Darkness it should at least affect the city, if not the country or world. The important thing is to know your system and its end game well enough to make the call.
Now consider what the players need to obtain the goal. Let's look at a few examples:
The players want to control a mythical artifact that was shattered long ago. Obviously, they need to obtain all the pieces with the final piece being obtained JUST BEFORE the final climatic battle/encounter. Why just before? Because what's the point of an awesome artifact if you don't get the chance to use it? If it's a weapon, someone should be attacking with it. If it's something more abstract, perhaps an item that can redefine reality, the final fight should be with an enemy who wants it for themselves, and is willing to plaster the party to get it. So, depending on how many pieces you want to have, you have a rough road map for the campaign: Piece 1, Piece 2, Piece 3, Piece 4. . . End Game.
If they're after revenge, it's a bit more abstract, but the same idea: They need to find out where the enemy is, they need to know his true capabilities, they might need something to counteract a specific strength, and then, they need to get to him.
If they want to control something or do something mythic themselves, they need to prepare. They need to have the goal, they need to get help, they need to make themselves better, and they have to DO the thing. Using the Hero's Journey as an outline for this is probably a good idea.
If they're after knowledge, the steps are also similar: They need to know the knowledge exists, they need to find out who or what has it, they need to find out where this thing is, and they need to go get it.
So now you have a basic road map, each major 'step' should take about equal portions of the experience ramp. I'm going to combine a few of the above ideas into one as I walk through a campaign plan that should keep players on the line.
End Game Hook: The players are trying to assemble an artifact that will let them revive an ancient empire to bring light back to the world. They will be opposed by a man who will stop at nothing to use that same artifact to gain unlimited demonic power and create an empire of his own.
Note that this hook combines three elements, and can include the fourth: An artifact of great power for Greed, a Glory in saving the world, Revenge in a long term antagonist, and Knowledge can be drawn on by making the ancient empire or artifact not something easily found out about. By using all four hooks, I hope to draw any potential players toward the same goal. Also, by including all four hooks, I can drop elements the players don't like without greatly affecting my ability to plan for their choices.
Now, steps for each goal:
I'll use the artifact as the initial hook for the game and break it into four pieces: The first will be a large gemstone on a necklace that acts as a scaling magical item over the course of the campaign. The second piece will be a rod, wand, or staff (Whichever one is most useful to the players) that the crystal can sit in. The third piece will look like a piece of accent on another scaling magic item. And the last 'piece' is a tower from the old Empire where the final battle can take place.
This is a hard one to work with, but likely, he'll be a 'behind the scenes' man, sending loyal henchmen who drop clues leading to him at the end, where he will personally try to dispose of our band of heroes. The first clue will be when someone tries to steal the necklace from the party, the next will be a man who was trying to get the rod, and the final clue can be a man who has the last piece of the artifact. Then, of course, we have our climax.
I'll say that the use of the artifact is going to be a hidden thing, with clues hidden in the pieces, the antagonist’s friends, and a few wise sages littered amongst the overarching story. I don't want to make this too specific, but the information should be paced so as to not give out so much as to have 'cut scenes' that slow the game down. We also want to make as much as possible relevant to the current story as possible. For our case, the first clue that the gem is more than it appears comes when they stop the 'thief,' who lets it slip that the group doesn't know what they're dealing with. From there, investigation should reveal its connection with the old empire, and lead to them seeking out ruins where the rod is kept. At the ruins, they encounter the second thug, whose murmurs reveal that there is an artifact that helped shape the old empire. If they investigate further, they should learn of the existence of the tower, and at least some of its function. Another piece of the puzzle is of course the 'key' hidden on another item, which should come into play when the last henchman tries to obtain the other two pieces, revealing that his master knows where the tower is and knows how to activate it. The players should be able to trace the antagonist enough to learn who he talked to, and where he went. Then we go on to our final encounter.
Glory takes effect pretty much anywhere along this path. Perhaps they're doing things for a specific king, or spreading their own names so as to more smoothly take control. It doesn't matter as long as people start talking about them.
So there we have a basic outline:
Adventurers do a dungeon crawl, find a special necklace.
Thief attempts to steal necklace, revealing that its worth is more than it seems.
Group seeks a sage to learn more (Or does research on their own!).
They go to ruins from the old empire.
A man they find wandering through the place reveals that there is an artifact of great power left from the old empire.
Upon defeating him, the players learn he worked for a man who wants all the parts of the artifact.
They find the rod.
They find information on the tower.
They seek out the last key, tracking the man who wants the artifact for himself.
A thug tries to stop them; they take the last piece from him.
They follow the trail left by the thug.
At the tower, they face off with their antagonist.
Win or lose, someone uses the tower.
With this in hand, you have a basic idea of where to go, and what small scale plot hooks to lie down in the players’ path. Combine some of these elements with the players’ short term goals and fill in any dull moments with the players tangents, and they’ll be enjoying themselves to the end.
As this article has proven much longer than I intended, I’m going to break the series into a few more parts. We’ll get into Adventure and Encounter planning in the next few segments, and end it with the Sinker: clinching Campaigns, Adventures, and Encounters in a way that satisfies.
Next week, I’ll look into discussing more mechanics ideas for ExoSquad, find out more about the load-outs I mentioned in my post on system mastery.
So what do you think, GMs, is this type of planning likely to help you out in the long run? What about players, you guys think this is too much of a railroad? Sound off in the comments!
Find Part 3 Here
Find Part 3 Here