Everything started ten years ago with an after-credits scene. IronMan (2008) set up the stage for an evolving universe in which the Marvel superhero movies would take place.
“You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become a part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”
— Nick Fury
The very essence of the DM’s job is often compared to the one a director does for a movie. But if that movie is destined to have a sequel, and you know the director is staying, then we’re facing an additional set of responsibilities. And what Marvel Studios has accomplished during these 10 years of movies, will have a legacy on how I plan my campaigns from now own. You’ll see, a few years before the MCU hit the movie theaters, I was pleased to incorporate hidden details about my next campaign when one was coming to closure. This was done more in the style of an easter egg than of a continuity addendum, but now I know better: The investment you can take as a DM to do such a titanic effort will have very rewarding consequences in your players and their characters. Let’s see what the MCU has taught us.
The Universe Bible
Even when using a campaign setting, our very own campaign universe has a particular storyline, so we need to decide how close or far will it be to the setting canon (of course, if you’re using your own world, then there is no need to take this decision). Beyond this, we’ll also need to set up some basics in terms of a theme and tone, just as the DungeonMaster’s Guide suggests.
When you have your basic idea about your campaign, it’s time to make a character roll. Not every background, class or race will be adequate for the story you and your players will tell, so it’s time for negotiations. Keep in mind that you’ll be in charge of an ensemble cast, and each player will have their own set of prerrogatives (a feat, a house rule, a non-official sourcebook, a magic item, etc.) Be ready to make concessions as much as you stick to your limitations: no one wants a frustrated player on the table. Take advantage of players’ rquest to make your own demands on their background, and be ready to exploit such stories for your own campaign purposes (long-lost families, dissapointed mentors, curses and prophecies, etc).
The Plot Coupons
Probably the most ambitious concept of the whole MCU has been the introduction of a pervasive artifact in its first phase all the way to the end of the third one: the Infinity Stones.
“Before creation itself, there were six singularities, then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of this system were forged into concentrated ingots… Infinity Stones.”
— The Collector
Infinity Stones are used in the MCU as multiple McGuffins, and you will also need a recurring concept that ties up all the parts of your campaign, giving it the continuity of a TV show whole season if you want to: an adventure during your campaign can be a “monster/dungeon of the week” or a “mythology” episode in which the mysteries of the storyline get slowly revealed. The glue behind your campaigns plot can be an artifact, a conspiracy or a war: just be sure to hide all the details in plain sight.
Cliffhangers and Bonus Scenes
When changing campaigns, it will be difficult to separate players’ knowledge from characters’ experience. Best and easiest trick to apply here is to have one of your characters have a journal that can be found by the new cast, or that the new characters are related in some way to the previous ones. If you want to, you can even tell the details found via a Legend Lore spell as a cinematic scene from a videogame (or a post-credits scene to keep the similarities, hehe).
Beyond this, once the key features of your campaign are discovered, you’ll also have to give your players reason to withdraw from it once in a while to pursue personal interests, such as gathering magic items. Be sure to pump up and down the urgency of the main plot to allow your players and their characters to breathe and settle… unless you don’t want them to on purpose.
In the end, what matters the most is that you feel identified with your masterwork. Long ago I hid the mythic Codex Anathema to my campaigns (and even named them in volumes after the mysterious tome) and it has brought me and my party multiplelevels of metasatisfaction when playing and trying to find out all the instances it’s being around everywhere. In the end, the book is just a McGuffin, as it is looked for both by the adventuring party and the mastermind behind every plot they’re thwarting. If you decide to take your campaign to the next cinematic level, I wish you all the inspiration you will need to accomplish it.