I’m still really, really happy with this campaign. Normally the further removed I am from a campaign the more I see what I did wrong and the less I remember about its successes, which is why I had to reread everything I had done for the Monster Campaign before I could talk about it on a podcast. But this campaign generated more good stories, more awesome moments, and more great characters on both sides of the screen than any other I’ve run. Sure, it had an advantage in that it had three times as many sessions as my second-longest campaign, but a good thing is a good thing.
There were a lot of little lessons I learned during this campaign: sometimes a build for your character doesn’t exist in the core rulebooks, a single good picture can generate an adventure’s worth of plot hooks, deathjump spiders are terrifying, and so on. But looking at the whole thing from start to finish, here’s are the bigger lessons, the ones it took me the entire campaign to accept and use:
- 4E can’t do everything, but it’s really, really good at the things it can do and much of the rest can be added on. I came in more familiar with 3E, which was a different system with a different goal and a different target audience, and initially I was disappointed that I couldn’t do in 4E what I could in 3E. But working in it for so long gave me a chance to see what 4E was designed for and add things to it that I found lacking. We’d push the system a bit harder for the One Piece Campaign, but this was a good start. At this point I’ve stopped looking at it as a system I have to use because it’s what’s running and started seeing it as a different tool to get a specific feel out of a campaign, which is what it (and every system, really) is. It’s a lesson I’m carrying with me as I look at 5E.
- Player composition makes or breaks a campaign. Usually this is one of the first lessons a DM learns by getting it wrong, but I’ve never had a single campaign that let me compare apples to apples so strongly. We had eleven players running a total of nineteen characters (counting all versions of a given character as one, and not counting any guest players or characters) plus me and everyone I threw at them. It was startling how much the feel of the campaign improved from when we had players and characters who didn’t get along to when we had the final party. I’ve gotten a lot pickier since then about players, which is probably as bad as it is good.
- Reskinning is awesome. I’d encouraged it in 3.5E, but 4E has a design aesthetic of “write powers that do things and worry about the abstraction later”, which makes it real easy to tweak said abstraction. Because early on I tended to use published monsters and powers (see about two paragraphs down) I got a lot of practice at stripping away the pretty parts of a power, getting to the roots, and building new prettiness. That’s helped me in a lot of ways over my career and it’s opened the floodgates for character design.
In general there’s not a lot I’d change about the campaign because it ran pretty well at it was. But if I had to change things, it would be these:
- A little less monster-of-the-week, a little more myth arc. As I said in the Senna and Giza posts, there weren’t a lot of plots that lasted from floor to floor. There were some (dealing with the tower guardians; the tower-spanning organization and the havoc it caused) but they weren’t as strong a thread as they could have been. It wasn’t until late Act 2 that the party really got rivals to compete against, for example, and my players will let you know how much I normally love that trope.
- Complete monster redesigns. When I started the campaign I wasn’t comfortable with making custom monsters and I ended up cobbling together powers from other published creatures. One campaign later, I won’t allow a pre-built monster at all. I think the early campaign would have been a lot more interesting if I’d had this level of system expertise from the get-go.
- Get a better handle on the late tower guardians early, and allow the guardians to meet the party in sections of the tower that weren’t their own. There’s no reason the tower guardians couldn’t have had a bit more to do with each other, perhaps subverting each other’s floors and using the party as a catalyst to bicker. It would have given the players a better handle on the guardians’ personalities and let me introduce some smaller multi-floor arcs to mitigate the monster-of-the-week problem above.
This campaign has even colored later campaigns from an in-universe perspective. The final party ascended to godhood and has been added to the pantheon of almost every campaign I’m running regardless of the system or who the others gods are. It does mean that universe-wide divinity leans more toward evil than it used to, and that’s something we’ll have to explore in bits and pieces over the coming years. Right now I’m still trying to convince somebody to follow one of these new gods; it seems having a player worshipping another player is a bit squicky.
I don’t think I’ll ever run another campaign like the Great Tower of Oldechi because I don’t see a need to explore that story again. It works fine on its own, the sense of discovery wouldn’t be the same a second time, and I have more campaigns I want to run than I have time and players anyway. Right now I’m running a campaign set in Hyrule (the rare setting where I’m not adding the new gods) and I expect the campaign after that will be the Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl. If players won’t pray to other former players, maybe they’ll rescue them instead.
For anybody who was playing at home, the tower guardians were based on the seven wonders of the ancient world: Alex and his lighthouse (the Lighthouse of Alexandria), Rody and his giant construct (the Colossus of Rhodes), Haelyn (the mausoleum at Halicarnassus), Jay (the Statue of Zeus at Olympia [I couldn’t come up with a way to make this one fit without being obvious, but Jay did fight with large statues and made it clear that he was not using his real name]), Diana (the Temple of Artemis [Diana’s Greek expy] at Ephesus), Senna and his hanging trees (short for Sennacherib, a potential owner of the place on which the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are based) and Giza (the Great Pyramid of Giza).