Even when they don’t appear immediately, it’s good to know what power centres exist in the campaign. If nothing else, it makes it much easier to lay groundwork so the players aren’t surprised that they exist.
To paraphrase Kevin Crawford from his most excellent An Echo, Resounding, players seem a little skeptical and ask hard questions when presented with a archlich who threatens the entire region and everyone fears… that they never even heard of before hitting level 12.
Kevin then describes a simple process to help avoid that situation, which I will summarize below.
- First, pick the biggest threat to the region. This should be something totally out of the PCs’ league at the campaign start, but perhaps manageable by the time of the campaign’s end. Guess high rather than low, in case you want to end the campaign early, because it’s easier to downscale a threat than upscale it.
- Second, pick two more threats that would be suitable for ‘name-level’ (Kevin is an old school gamer; this means ‘around level 9’). These do not need to be related to or subordinate to the Big Bad. They’re biggish problems and solving them should be noteworthy, if not as much as defeating the Big Bad.
- Third, pick about four more threats good for ‘mid-level’ PCs (i.e. ‘around level 5’). These are problems that start bringing the PCs into notice… quite dangerous to normal people, but not overwhelming to heroes with some experience.
Note that these are not intended to be ‘level-appropriate encounters’, but ‘a challenge suitable for a party of that level’, and probably worth an adventure (perhaps a level’s worth of effort) to resolve. It might take even longer, in fact: the relatively minor threat might take a level’s worth of effort to resolve, with a climax encounter a few levels above the PCs’ level, while the Big Bad might take three or four levels of effort to resolve.
Imagine trying to take down that archlich I mentioned earlier, who not only is personally powerful but has several layers of defenses and influence, obvious and inobvious, with the rules of the realms around him. Resolving the situation is not going to be as simple as riding up and soaking him in holy water until he dissolves, and destroying his phylactery. Even if the PCs can pull that off, they could be dealing with the power vacuum and related fallout for ages. Resolving this problem could involve several levels worth of effort dismantling or neutralizing the Big Bad’s infrastructure and allies, and even just finding where the Big Bad is and how to destroy it… at which point it’s probably still several levels above the PCs in power, likely has minions and other supporting combatants, and will still be a tough fight to defeat.
Sounds like a lot of work, but most of it doesn’t matter until it comes up in practice. To start with, it’s enough to know of
- The Nightlord, a shadowy figure whose influences touches the higher echelons of the realms’ nobility to nefarious purpose.
- Firefang, a fire dragon of prodigious power that oppresses a Kingdom and eats its virgins, but prevents the Nightlord from gaining a foothold.
- The Syndicate, a collection of guilds that spans the realms and is ostensibly a force for stability and fairness in trade. (Opposing the Nightlord in a shadow war? Under the influence, if not the control, of the Nightlord? Tentative alliance or non-aggression agreement because they do not at this time have conflicting purpose?)
- Baron Foxworth, who carved a demesne out of the wilderness and dares anyone to deny his claims… and allows bandits and raiders to use his barony as a haven, for a price.
- Goblins of the Abandoned Tower, who raid the villages and small towns around a long-abandoned wizard’s tower.
- The queen of serpents, who lives in a lost temple in the marsh, and whose minions prey on the people of the area around it, kidnapping them for nefarious, or possibly nutritious, purpose.
- The plain of bone, for ages the site of battle until the dead themselves gained enough power to fight back, and periodically band together to seek vengeance on the kingdoms that left them there to rot and moulder away.
All of these have connections to other entities and are known in their sphere of influence. The first one is pretty nebulous and will be difficult to get a handle on, even apart from being difficult to truly kill. The next might be easy to find (in that discovering common locations isn’t hard) but might be hard to reach and difficult to destroy. The Syndicate, on the other hand, might appear to be generally beneficial from the outside (and thus gain societal protection) and is just big and hard to target. After that, they’re generally easier to identify and get a handle on… more than a regular encounter, it might take a fair bit of work actually, but much more limited in scope.
This completely ignores, of course, the lower-level or disconnected threats. You can still have bands of winter wolves threaten the farmlands in the depth of winter, bandits can be found almost anywhere, and if an immense dragon has been asleep under the mountain for centuries, well… there might be stories the grandfathers tell, but with no activity since their grandfathers’ time, it could be just a phantom to scare children.
In any case, devising even a (large) handful of threats like this, even at the extremely summary level presented here, gives the GM quite a bit of fodder to use when working up an adventure… and things to hint at in ‘unrelated adventures’ that give a campaign an overarching story.
Even if you don’t know what that story is until after it’s played out. It didn’t cost much to create, and you can change direction (create a new Hall of Infamy) without too much pain. From the end, it’ll still look pretty straight.