Campaign Climaxes

We’ve talked exposition, complication, crisis, and it has all been building to this: the Climax! From a narrative standpoint, this is the thing that the whole campaign is about, but Pathfinder Second Edition games can be tricky to plan climaxes for: just because I as the Games Master have some sense of what will happen, does not mean that it will happen. In my initial campaign, I planted a scroll of Fireball for the party to find because I had planned for the session to end with a mob of monsters attacking the village the party was in.

They accidentally set it off attempting to copy the spell. (If you’re wondering how, it has to do with the Natural 1 rolled in that attempt.)

In terms of campaigns, there are two kinds of models we can follow: serialized storytelling and episodic storytelling. In a serialized campaign, there is a set of overarching plots which run over the course of the campaign; on the other hand, in an episodic campaign the events are not necessarily connected from session to session. These are not mutually exclusive. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural have ongoing storylines while also featuring monster-of-the-week episodes.

As a rule, I like to plan an overall shape of the campaign, and then revise session by session, eventually reaching a climax for the campaign. But, I also like each session to go through the phases of exposition, complication, crisis, and climax. I find that in practice, it’s tricky for me to get through all of these stages in a four hour session. The genre requirements of fantasy role playing use combat – or at least conflict – as a way to signify progress in the plot in the same way that musicals use songs to signify progress in the plot. These conflicts take time to resolve; in my previous campaign using Pathfinder First Edition, I could generally get two combat encounters and a handful of social encounters through in an individual session of 3-5 hours.

Practically, this means that exposition and complications take the form of some introductory scene-setting and a short combat encounter, and that the crisis (the event leading into the climax) is some kind of news leading into the second longer combat encounter. (I’m not saying they have to be fights, but Pathfinder has a whole lot of rules about fighting. Other systems are much better at facilitating other kinds of conflict resolution; Gumshoe games, for example, focus on investigation rather than combat.)

All of this leads into a resolution – the establishing of a new status quo – which is something I’ll deal with next week.

But back to the climax. To achieve a climax, a couple of things need to happen:

  1. A climax is conclusive: while the plot may not be over, somehow progress must occur. This could be facing down a boss, achieving some kind of quest milestone, or engaging with some kind of objective, but the party needs to be able to do or achieve something meaningful.
  2. A climax is significant: whatever the conflict is over, it needs to be important. It could be capturing a Macguffin, it could be stopping some part of the enemy’s plan, it could even be failure, but there need to be consequences rippling out from the climax or it is less than climactic.
  3. A climax is earned: the players need to work to reach the climax of a session, and they definitely need to work to reach the climax of a campaign. The climax is the moment when obstacles are overcome, and it is necessary to have resistance to meet the point of the climax for it to achieve the feel that a climax should.

I can’t really write about my sequel campaign as an illustration because I don’t want my players to know in advance, but I can tell you that next week I’ll be discussing resolutions. Happy gaming!

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