Saga-Style Campaign Play pt. 1: Setting Up a Game, Characters, and Moderating the Session-to-Session Story

So first, quick update:
  • The Cleric Replacement Project will be returning completely rethought.
  • Once I get more work done on my current rulesbrew, I'll be finishing Revelations of the Mononoke-Hime & the Psionic Wasteland.
  • Heaven Burned & Bless'd, my Dragon Bride project, will be huge for me and coming out sometime next year. So will my rulesbrew as an actual system.
  • The Exploring Characters Series is over. The next part of that project will be creating the overall structure of the game, as well as more classes.
This is just to update some people that've asked me if I'll finish any of these projects or not.

I did a post a few thousand years ago about playing RPGs in a style that produces Norse Saga-style stories.  I want to revisit this concept with more detail to make it something usable. I suggest reading the linked blog post, because I don't want to repeat a lot of what I already wrote. But to recap the most important points:
  1. The game takes place over several generations or is very episodic.
  2. Characters do not develop, but they do die or disappear.
  3. Characters die a lot.
  4. Characters are not nobodies, but instead chosen by gods or born special.
These 4 tenets can be clearly seen in a variety of Norse sagas. Let me clarify the 4th point a bit more.

art-shannonigans: Rebecca YanovskayaĆ¢†’Winged... | Pipistrella Felix
What I'd give to have Rebecca Yanovskaya do art for this project.

A saga is not a story about random people. In every saga, the start of it includes some godly interference or otherwise special birthing. The Volsunga are literally related to Odin, and he chooses them as a family to harvest warriors from.

This means sagas are not about:
  • Some bastards trying to get rich.
  • Some bastards clearing out dungeons.
  • Some bastards trying to reverse the Death Curse.
  • Some bastards randomly sucked into Ravenloft.
  • Some bastards trying to steal the painting of the Maze of the Blue Medusa.
A saga can and should include some of the above. But those situations are not the core of what Saga-style play is about. THIS MEANS THAT SAGA-STYLE PLAY IS NOT FOR EVERY TABLE.

I suggest you attempt Saga-style play if you meet any of the below criteria:
  • You and your table want to make an epic of some sort.
  • You and your table want to play lots of mid-high tier characters over a length of time.
  • You and your table want to do something like an alternative to a West Marches campaign.
  • You have a bunch of random modules you want to string together.
  • You want to explore a setting in a different and new way.
  • You and your table want to do a series of heroic tales.
In short, Sagas are the heroic version of West Marches. I don't expect everyone to enjoy Saga-style play, just the same as I don't expect everyone to enjoy reading actual Sagas. 

So then, how to mechanically play Saga-style? Below, an outline for this blog post:
  1. Setting Up the Game
  2. Creating Characters
  3. Session-to-Session dynamic
Keep in mind, I have not personally played all the content in this blog post, and this is an early draft. I plan on cleaning this up, testing it out, and making it into a booklet one day. Feel free to riff off of this material and to use it as is, but I do plan to make it into a product.

This is part 1 of the series. Part 2 will include a fuckton of plot points for different aesthetics/settings. If there are more parts in the future, they'll be linked here.


Step 1: As a group, decide what kind of aesthetic you're searching for.

Saga-style play can happen in any setting, from cyberpunk to norse mythos to veins of the earth stuff. Where you decide is important for the next few steps.

Step 2: Choose or outline a number of very powerful and threatening beings to have in your saga.

For the Volsunga Saga, we have a dragon, valkyries, and kings. You need stuff like that. If you were to do this with Frostbitten & Mutilated you have 3 witches, an undead king, and two apocalyptic gods to use. If you were to do this with Veins of the Earth you have the anti-phoenix, weird nightmare elves, and the rapture to play with. Notably, this won't work with some adventures. The Tomb of Horrors or Against the Giants or White Plume Mountain won't work with this. But, these modules can be dropped into a saga as a portion of it, albeit shortened. Most adventure paths from Paizo or WotC won't work; they are completed stories and you have to butcher the story up in order to make it fit in a Saga-style game. Other than these major enemies, all other enemies require only one successful hit to kill. Your players will be cutting through great swathes of foes until they get to the Big Guy (TM).

Step 3: Decide what your Saga is about.

A family being harvested for Ragnorak? A family trying to become great? A family trying to get revenge or get something back? Have a d6 table to decide if you can't think up anything:
  1. A deific being puts obstacles before the family in order to turn them into heroes for some other purpose.
  2. A family has had something important taken from them, and must deal with the consequences of losing it, and of getting it back.
  3. A family has been scattered to the winds and must regroup to bring order back to something.
  4. Some power has blessed the family, and that blessing will be stolen if not defended by completing different obstacles.
  5. A family wishes to become great rulers over something else.
  6. A family has been cursed and must, over generations, eventually break the curse.
Step 4: Generate a handful of plot points to start the game with.

Sagas are heavily plot-based. You should have a number of tables, or a nice d100 table, to roll plot points on. To begin with, you'll roll on this table 2-4 times. This will produce a number of plot points for you to build sessions around, and give you ideas for where to bring material in. This also means that Saga-style play has a slight railroad built into it. The fun is having a plot point, introducing it, and seeing how the party interacts with it, then introducing the next organically from that. For groups who don't prefer overarching plots, or for groups who want to do whatever the hell they want to do, Saga-style play is not for them. This is not to be confused for this being a full railroad or a novel or w/e. Plot points are things like "Odin puts a sword into a tree and one day a PC will pull it out, becoming a hero," or "A dragon will kidnap one of the PC's loved ones, and the PC will have to figure out a way to get them back." These plot points are basically adventure seeds being tied into a generational campaign. When you finish using your first 2-4 pre-rolled plot points, either roll for more or create them based on what's happening in the game.

Step 5: Create NPCs to randomly drop into the game. (Optional)

This part is more important than it sounds. While impromptu NPCs are perfect for all kinds of games, for a Saga-style thing, you should create a suite of NPCs to be able to drop at the ready. You don't need to introduce them all at once, or even introduce all of them, but it'll help you moderate the saga by creating NPCs already.

Image result for Rebecca Yanovskaya


If you are playing a game other than the one I am creating, follow the below points:
  • All characters should be mid-high tier characters. This means 9th+ for most kinds of D&D, etc.
  • All characters must be related to one another either through blood or some kind of favorable history.
  • All characters should be roughly special. Jarls, fallen Valkyrie, exiled monarchs, princes, demi-gods, what have you. 
  • No character should last more than 2-4 sessions if you are doing standard generational play.
  • Players should have whatever mundane equipment they want, from full plate to cool weapons to hirelings, etc. If you want to put a maximum on this, take whatever it is they start with in terms of currency and multiply that by 20.
The above 4 points are pretty simple. With these, be it Lamentations of the Flame Princess, B/X, D&D 5E, L5R, Traveller, the Witcher, etc, you should be able to make characters fitting for a Saga-style campaign.

Note This for Generational Play: Regardless of the system you're playing, expect to run through 5-10 characters each during the length of the campaign. Some will be written off. Others will die. Every 2-4 sessions though, everyone should be playing something else, and the timeline moved forward to accompany this.

If you do want to play with the rulesbrew I am creating:

Establish the following:
  • Saves & 4th Attribute.
  • A death mechanic, if any.
  • Keywords. You'll want around 50 instead of the normal 20, given the amount of PCs you'll be going through.
  • Classes
I'll be making a Saga-style Hero CAT (Character Advancement Table) at a later date for this.

There will be rewards for your characters.

Roll for the type of the reward below.
  1. A magical weapon.
  2. A magical trinket.
  3. A blessing of some sort.
  4. A reward in the form of castles, land, or hirelings.
You should create a number of tables for each one of these things. You will roll on them before the beginning of each session; these are potential rewards to give to your players.

Note This for Generational Play: Characters do not level up in Saga-style play. They do not gain XP, they do not gain new class features, they only gain new rewards in the form of the above. 

Note This for Same Caste Play: Characters will level up every 2-4 sessions, or otherwise gain some new features to show their progress.

Writing Off Your Characters: If you need some inspiration or help doing so, roll on the table below.
  1. And so X ruled until their eventual death.
  2. And so X exited the story.
  3. And so X died soon after.
  4. And so X was no longer the center of the story.
  5. And so X married Y and lived peacefully.
  6. And so X was slain by Y.
It's simple stuff, really. The circumstances of the game can probably lead to more interesting ways of writing off characters.

If you want, you can also have a time-limit on characters. This is how many sessions you can play the character before having to write it off. If you go this route, then roll 1d4 when you make the character. The number rolled is the number of sessions before they are written off.

New Character Relationships: For determining how your next character is related to the rest, roll on the following table.
  1. The child of the player sitting to my left.
  2. The child of the player sitting to my right.
  3. The new spouse of the player sitting across from me.
  4. An ally of the original family.
  5. Someone in love with, awed by, or who greatly respects the player sitting left to the GM.
  6. Someone who owes a great debt to the player sitting to the right of the GM.
If a character ever dies mid-session: Roll up the next one and introduce it that same session.

There are some sagas that feature the same character or cast for a long time. Beowulf, for example, or the stories of Odin and co. For these types of sagas, you are basically doing episodic generations, where every 2-4 sessions the entire backdrop changes but the cast remains the same. 

Image result for Rebecca Yanovskaya


Your game will need a starting situation. Use the plot points you rolled for this. Each subsequent session should be themed around another plot point. If you want, you can put multiple plot points into a session. That is fine, but keep in mind that for every plot point that the table decides is "handled," there will be a timeskip.

Timeskips are important. A Saga will spread outwards for generations. At the end of each session, the table has 2 options: timeskip forward, or continue playing in this same era. If you can't decide, roll a dice, evens being timeskip and odds being same era.

If a timeskip happens before a plot point is resolved, that plot point is now the problem for the next generation of characters. It's up to the table or GM to decide why the plot point was not resolved. Remember you do not have to timeskip in between sessions. However there should be a time-skip every 2-4 sessions. The goal is not to spend too much time with a specific generation.

Whenever there is a timeskip, characters should be written off and replaced. It is valid to keep 1 character around, if the table prefers. My suggestion is that during the campaign, each player can keep 1 character alive from generation to generation, so everyone has that opportunity.

How long is the timeskip for? Roll on the table below.
  1. 1d4+1 years.
  2. 1d10+2 years.
  3. 1d4 decades.
  4. The same year, but with completely different characters separate from the current cast.
Do not apply timeskips if using the same cast of characters

Once all plot points are resolved from the batch you already rolled them in, either roll new plot points or create some of your own. I suggest rolling, usually, because it creates a constraint of "how do I make this work?" and I like that constraint.

The purpose of plot points is to stretch out the original cast's goal over several generations. If there comes a point where the table wants the saga to end, don't roll more plot points. Instead, for the next 1 or 2 sessions, have this cast of character tie up their family's saga.

During each session, players should get some of the rewards you rolled up. Characters, by time they are written-off, will be kinda' loaded with new shit, but that's the point of their individual legend.

Note This: Sessions are fast-paced. In one-session, a lot should happen. Killing a dragon, marrying a queen, and losing the kingdom in one-session should not be a strange occurrence. Stretching these sessions into short chapters or arcs of 2-4 in length is the sole reason that generations tend to last 2-4 sessions long. But in that handful of sessions, an entire story, somewhat focused, should be played out.

Keep track of events in each sessions so you can bring them up later. A simple 1-sentence summary for each major event will go a long way in making the whole saga feel consistent.

Combat rounds, if your system of choice has that, should only exist when fighting something big, like a king or a dragon. If fighting minions and "going back and forth through their ranks" (a common Norse saga phrase), there's no combat round really, just attacking and dealing with the situation as it comes.

If you want to introduce other modules into a saga, you have 3 clear options. There might be more, but these are the 3 I'm thinking on.
  1. Shorten the module so that it can be completed in 1 session.
  2. Have that entire module be that generation's story for 2-4 sessions.
  3. Have that module be the entire backdrop for the saga.
The above frameworks should make Saga-style fairly compatiable with whatever modules you want t to run.

Image result for Rebecca Yanovskaya

SO that's it for part 1. A doozy, this post. I'll be testing this out a bit, but I'm always open to feedback.

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