Maybe once in a DM’s life they will have that one campaign that they and the players will never forget, their Mona Lisa, the highlight of their DMing career; the legendary campaign.
A legendary campaign is one that keeps the players begging for more, people who have never played it know about it and for those involved few, if any, other games will ever be quite as good. While some groups may never give the DM the satisfaction of saying the campaign was legendary, everyone involved will know if it happens.
While any smart DM will take credit for the brilliance of this campaign when it happens, a good DM knows that they only played a part in making it great. It takes the right mixture of ideas, a lot of quick thinking, preparation and of course just the right player mood and chemistry.
My legendary campaign happened not long after D&D 3e came out and I found myself as the newly christened DM for my new gaming group. The group was small consisting of myself and 4 players (there were 3-4 other players that would drift in from time to time but I’m focusing on the core group) who were still using 2e and had been gaming together for quite a while. I had only sat in with them a few times and other than that hadn’t really played for years. I was a little intimidated to say the least. Yet there I was, the new kid on the block, taking over their group and introducing new rules to boot. I knew my first run had to be something big or else they might not trust me to DM again, so I had to pull out all the stops.
I spent nearly a week just coming up with ideas and fleshing out the campaign setting before I even started putting the first session together. I did the standard DM prep, creating NPC’s, preparing encounters and coming up with the most brilliant villain ever, or so I thought at the time. Game night came and after converting some of their 2e characters to 3e we ventured into the homebrew campaign that eventually came to be known as "The 5 Towers".
Before I get into the specifics of the game, I would like to give you a little insight into this campaign. The back story for the 5 towers was a little convoluted to say the least. The old gods created the universe, and then they created the elder races (dragons, elves, etc). The gods felt that something was missing because there was no race that truly conveyed the brilliance of the gods, so they created man. The ruler of the gods had two sons. One was very wise and would one day take his father’s place as ruler of the gods. The other son was a selfish, little brat who despised his brother.
The brat decided that since man was favored by the gods he would turn them against their creators. So he went down and started pointing out to the humans that if they were favored by the gods then why weren’t they as powerful as the dragons, and why didn’t they live as long as the elves. Being the conniving brat he was, he also worked to make the elder races jealous of the humans since they were favored, yet were “inferior” to the elder races. Of course everyone began to question the gods and the races declared war on each other. All the while the bratty god was conspiring with some evil outsiders to invade the gods’ domain so he could take over. Then, as the gods dealt with the war between all the races, the bratty god and his army of outsiders stormed the gods’ domain and he attempted to over throw his father.Naturally he failed.
Once the races were placated, and the outsider invasion was driven back the king of the gods turned his sights on his treacherous child. As punishment he took his son down to “earth” and in front of all the races he broke him into 5 pieces and placed each piece into a crystal. Each piece contained a portion of the bad son’s godly knowledge and powers and the only way his son could be made whole was by bringing the crystals together. Each of these 5 crystals were placed in one of 5 towers, each tower had a key that the gods hid.
As if this all wasn’t complicated enough, the gods placed each of the towers and each of the keys in different dimensions/realms that they controlled. Then to make it even harder to rejoin the pieces each tower and each key would periodically shift to a different dimension/plane, but no single piece would ever appear in the same dimension as another piece, so the gods thought that there was absolutely no way for the bad son to every be made whole.
Jump ahead quite a few years to a magic school where a young mage finds a tome with the details of the events I have just described. He is intrigued and wants to harness the bad son’s powers for his own. So like any good villain, he becomes obsessed with this quest and becomes an evil wizard in the process. Just as he is on the cusp of finding the first key our heroes are recruited by an emissary of the gods to stop him.
In hindsight I can see that my main villain and even the campaign itself was mediocre at best. I tried too hard to come up with a great idea and honestly ended up with a complicated back story (believe me the version you have just read is an overly simplified version) and a crappy, cardboard villain. If someone else had told me this idea I would have told them it was too complicated and the villain was too bland. How did this become our legendary campaign? The thing that elevated this campaign to legendary status was some quick thinking on my part, some good NPCs, interesting supporting villains and the brilliant, often hilarious, roleplaying by the group.
The first hour or so of the game was less than great, in truth it stunk. Everyone was brought together and naturally accepted the quest, gathered their gear and went on their merry way. They found out which key the evil wizard was going after (you had to have a key before you could unlock the corresponding tower) and decided to beat him to it. Naturally they were too late, but it was around this stage of the game where things got interesting.
While racing to find the first key they stumbled upon a laboratory. The place was covered in blood and body parts were scattered everywhere. As the group’s ranger, wizard and necromancer scoured the area looking for anything of use, two small children entered the room. They told the group how they had come in search of their parents who had been kidnapped and brought here and asked the group to help them. Naturally the group agreed, and boy did they regret that.
Soon the group found themselves being tortured by the two children who ended up being two of the most sadistic villains I have ever created. I won’t go into any details about what happened but needless to say if I ever needed to get the player’s attention in future campaigns, all I had to do was mention the fact there were children present. I may have gone a little over the top with these two but they definitely left their mark on the group, in more ways than one.
The PC’s managed to escape using team work and a lot of dumb luck only to end up watching the first tower disappear just as they reached the door. (Each time you unlocked a tower it would return to the spot where the bratty god was ripped to pieces.) This is when someone in the group had an idea. Instead of racing to keep the bad guy from making off with the towers, they should just go after the keys that the villain hadn’t gotten yet and hold on to them. Everyone agreed and once they found his next target they went dimension hopping in the opposite direction.
From a GM’s point of view this was brilliant move on their part as it turned the tables and forced the villains to start chasing them. The PC’s ended up being the ones on the run and it led to some great chases, unforgettable battles and most of all some of the best roleplaying I have had the good fortune to encounter. The whole dimension/plane hopping aspect was really fun as well because I was able to drop them into nearly any fantasy setting I could come up with (I'm a fan of the show Sliders in case you hadn't figured that one out). They visited almost everything from the Forgotten Realms to Middle Earth to the Wheel of Time world. They even picked up a stray Warder whose Aes Sedai had died trying to help them.
Now the demon twins, as they came to be known, were not the only memorable NPC/supporting villains I pulled out of my bag of tricks. The group’s emissary to the gods had a twin sister who worked for the other team and when the evil twin impersonated her sister to throw the group off track they began to distrust everyone, which created a lot of conflict and kept the group on edge.
They encountered a “friendly” vampire who informed the group they were not the first, but the third group the gods had recruited for this quest. With the exception of the vampire all the other groups had perished, which made the PCs suspicious of the whole mission and question their chances of success. So again some one had the idea that they should one up everyone else and keep the towers for themselves and again they all agreed. (This group never played truly good PC’s) Now they were not only trying to keep the first villain from attaining the keys but also trying to avoid the new group the gods had recruited to stop them; no matter where they went someone was after them.
This campaign went on every weekend, and some week nights, for nearly six months and only continued to improve each session. In that time I threw everything I could at them, I had the group change bodies with some of the villain’s minions, one member of the group even sacrificed themselves and remained in the body of a goblin just to return the others to their rightful forms. They got caught in the middle of a dragon war, one PC became a vampire and was subsequently beheaded by another PC (they were later brought back), they battled evil copies of themselves, one PC was cursed with killer BO, they found creative uses for a mirror that would randomly teleport them to another dimension and fought valiantly in the final battle between all the various factions.
For my first run as a DM in this group I was proud of what we had created and no game since has had quite the same spark. Sure there were a lot of other fun campaigns, and a few that I would venture to say were great, but none were quite as perfect as "The 5 Towers". As time went by problems arose within the group, and players began to move on, some even quit gaming completely. Every once in a while some of us would get together and try to get things going again, but something always got in the way. Often during these get togethers, usually when there was a new player to impress, someone would bring up "The 5 Towers" and all of our faces would light up as we told old war stories. We even tried to play through it again, to let the new kids see what a great campaign it really was, but it was never the same.
Eventually I took the campaign notes and filed them away in my closet, but occasionally I drag them out, read them and reminisce. There was something magical about that campaign and that group. Somehow we took a mediocre campaign and turned it into something great, something that all of us were a part of and that will forever live on in our memories. As a DM or even as a player I may never be fortunate enough to find that perfect mix again, but I count myself as one lucky gamer for being a part of it.