How Long Should your Campaign Be?

in tabletop-rpg •  4 months ago 

I've discovered Reddit relatively recently, and I saw a question about running games and how to stop switching games every few months. Since this is a problem I dealt with in my early roleplaying days, I figured I might have some interesting things to share. I've also been killing too much time on it and need to convert some of it into something productive.

One of the fundamental elements of roleplaying is that it's a group storytelling experience. The whole game is dependent on people coming together, typically over a long period of time. The most common term for a game that lasts more than just a couple sessions is a "campaign", reflecting a long-term commitment.

But one of the factors that goes into this is closely related to the purpose of roleplaying: the length a story should be. A lot of people like the big, epic campaigns that go on for months or years, and these are the ones that create some of the most memorable characters and stories.

However, it's worth nothing that a lot of those games are based on ties outside the game (though not always), and that there's nothing wrong with a shorter game. Let's look over some stuff here. I'm generally addressing this to Game Masters; people who run games, but other players can benefit too, since it's a group thing and players have both a stake and a say in what's played.

How much of a campaign do you really want?

When I first ran games, I jumped from game to game after a year-long campaign. The first game was entirely seat-of-the-pants, and it was tremendously funny and hilarious because it was a bunch of my college friends getting together to hang out. The campaign ended at the end of the year, and the group chemistry changed as we added people and some people left. The whole time it was more of a social experience, like a very nerdy party or dance gathering or whatever the heck normal people do in groups on Friday nights.

All of the shorter games lasted a number of weeks. The reason for this was that I was setting up a bunch of shorter plots for each of the smaller campaigns. Even though I wanted a longer campaign, I didn't do what I had to do to have a longer game.

Although there wasn't a plan to terminate the campaign at the end of each short plot (or often even before that), I wound up having burnout and drift because I was going beyond what I'd set myself up to support. It wasn't that I was out of ideas, but the good ones were all front-loaded and the final parts of the plot didn't have more interesting things to push the group onward.

One of the problems is that I wasn't thinking about the plot. I had a story and ideas for what would be cool, but I didn't actually have a whole bunch of ideas for the follow-up. Later I'd realize that I really just wanted to explore a single idea, since I was running more thematic and less player-shenanigans-driven games as my players and I matured.

I've generally shifted toward running campaigns that are shorter by design. I aim for seven, eight, or nine weeks worth of sessions. At that point, if everyone's happy, we keep going and I work on a new plot arc for another amount of time. It's not a process that's based on just assuming that things perpetuate infinitely.

Think of a campaign kind of like a TV show with seasons. You can have games that run over a longer course, but you can also have a few sessions with one really solid driver and other stuff going on beside them that could be explored later if people are still into it. At the point where a shorter arc, with a finite duration, winds up, you can add another element on.

One of the things that I've learned from reading novels that come in a series is that a really strong writer will (barring part 1/part 2 type situations) always make sure that the story resolves at the end, but leave a dangling hook. If the next book doesn't get written/published, the reader still has a conclusion and they don't feel ripped off, but they leave one or two threads.

For instance, let's say you have a tremendous villain who does all the things villains do: oppressing the locals, harassing the heroes, creating noise complaints, and generally breaking rules. You get to the end of that arc, and you reveal that there's something that drove him that's still out there. It doesn't have to be some wacky magic or space aliens, either: he could be part of a larger conspiracy, a morally compromised person trying to be a hero in the face of a greater danger, or a pawn for another character. The motivations are revealed, but the deeper secrets are not.

Then you decide: does the game continue down this new path, or do you say "Oh hey, they saved the day!"

It's worth noting that it's polite not to make it be "Oh hey, we can play or this whole world we've shared will end in blood and chaos." The heroes are still there, and they can be assumed to carry on from where they left off.

Are you getting bored, or are you just excited about new things?

When I first started running games, I was a reviewer at DriveThruRPG. I would review 20-30 games a year, and that's not counting all the other stuff I looked at. Needless to say, it's not a good recipe to be faithful to a game if you're constantly sneaking glances at other games without really thinking about what you're doing.

Not every game spoke to me, but I generally like things (I'm easygoing and have broad tastes), so I was constantly exposing myself to more and more things. Each time I did so I'd come up with a game that struck me as better than others in at least one way (being better than the alternatives in at least one way turns out to be quite easy), and I'd always fixate on that.

I don't think it's good advice to tell you to just not check out other games, though I've kind of drifted toward that as I work more on games and play less. Before switching games, take a few weeks or a month considering it, just as you might spend a few days or weeks contemplating a big purchase. The first piece of advice here is also useful: have a set point where you can say "We're done" or "We're gonna keep going."

Another consideration here is that it might not hurt to have an outlet for other things. My group got into a habit of always running two games, so we'd be able to have a variety of things. We could switch out one game frequently and keep the other going for a long time, or have two simultaneously running games for a long time.

Another option could be gaming with more than one group. For a lot of my early gaming career when I had more time than responsibility, I had a local group and an online group that I would play with, and I will occasionally run games for or play with two or three groups simultaneously.

The first secret to managing this is to test the waters before you jump into anything that interests you. Spend some time really going over the game; if there's actual play of it you might want to check it out (but be forewarned that a lot of these are going to be run by really great players, and might tempt you more than the game itself!) and make sure that the game actually delivers on what you were hoping.

The other secret is to ask: Is the new thing going to be more satisfying than the current one?

You might find that either you're going to be on a "fad" or something your group doesn't really enjoy, or that you have really been jumping around because you haven't been happy with the games you've been playing. If you discover you weren't happy and switching is a way to get around that, you really need to consider what goal you're trying to achieve when you play.

What's your game "diet"?

One of the things that I often counsel people who come to me about gaming gripes (which sounds more hardcore than these conversations usually are) is that they should watch their game diet. What do you want from a game? What makes you play? As a GM, what makes you do it?

Do the games you play satisfy that diet? The creative drive is a very complex thing, and you may be satisfying parts of it and leaving others untouched. I used to make several thousand word long supplements for games that I was playing because I have a particular urge to do the rules side of games (also, customize to my preferred experiences or port good mechanics from one system to another), but both as a GM and as a player I gravitated toward games based on their settings rather than their mechanics.

There's really three elements that I think are significant in roleplaying games (though in games more broadly as a field there are a couple more you could identify), and they're tied to the actual rules experience, the characterization and setting elements, and the way that a game facilitates plots and storylines.

Enjoying Rules

A lot of people underestimate the power that rules have in making games fun. Even though roleplaying is often more about storytelling than playing a game, it still helps to have a framework that's both clearly understood and leads to what you want.

When I started playing, I was a fan of going for the hardest game I could figure out and making that my game of choice, almost like an elitist. I was really into the numbers and balance side of things, and I loved sheer variety.

As I matured, I moved toward a more abstract and narrative approach. I still like high resolution outcomes, but I prefer that the systems that drive them be as transparent and simple as possible. I value speed because it lets the storytelling resume.

Rules are important for any player, though. Complex rules foster and reward a troubleshooting mindset, especially if there are mechanics that encourage particular solutions to problems. Simpler rules may not do this, creating issues in some groups but not in others.

Rules also tie into both characterization and storytelling. A savvy GM can do a certain amount to facilitate this (much as a shrewd storyteller can do audience interactions), but rules can help to provide a common basis from which to work on the story as well as an opportunity to impose a little form and structure on the narrative.

Enjoying Characterization

Characterization is the place where I still go in for more complex rules. In Hammercalled, my game, I have characters be defined by a few common traits and then a lot of potentially unique elements (literally; there are no universal skills, just abilities, and every item in the game is intended to be made custom to each character). Despite this the actual mechanics try to be as quick and simple as possible.

The reason why characterization is important is that it's a connection to a person, but it's not just a social connection. It's a connection to a person who you can know better than anyone else (because you can see into their head), but also a person who breaks the rules you'd normally live by. They can be more perfect or more horrible than any real person, and connecting to them permits emotional catharsis.

Characters emerge out of settings and concepts, and are stretched out on the framework of a game's rules. A game like Shadowrun or Degenesis gives a lot of flexibility for all sorts of granular elements in a character, while games like Fate and even to a degree the fifth edition of D&D focus on broad conceptual decisions during characterization.

Setting is really important to this. I've gravitated almost exclusively to preferring settings where people group together for a community's sake and away from traditional adventuring parties: whether it takes the form of a group of Shadowrunners trying to save their home, a band of Imperial Guards in Only War trying to survive their latest deployment, or a group of scavengers trying to survive in Degenesis. Many settings facilitate this, but it requires an intentional eye to how it comes together.

Enjoying Storytelling

Games have a differing ability to tell stories. Some games build in storytelling mechanics, and others don't.

You want to consider if a game has what you really want here. A lot of games give a narrative currency that lets players hop into the GM's seat for a moment, or at least alter ther universe in their favor. Other games don't, leaving the players to react to a world that they are exploring without controlling it.

Even more adventurous designers sometimes put particular concepts or scenarios into the design of game mechanics, moving from one point to another in a plot as the game continues. Sometimes this isn't done on a large scale; The Expanse features a "churn" mechanic that represents a short-term narrative arc, while other games try to depict particular historical or fictional events through complex changes in rules.

One reason a game may end early is because these storytelling mechanics are present or absent in a way that alters the experience away from the desired mode of play and narrative. Fortunately, they are often able to be transposed from one game to another, and some may even be considered a default mode of storytelling: it's a great thing when a player is able to work in a minor character and save the GM some effort.

Why the Diet Matters

Having a good "diet" keeps your tastes from wandering away from game-to-game because you're getting everything you want and need from the games you're playing. They also determine how long you can play any individual game: assuming you're not playing a game with a fixed end-point (which is sometimes the case), you can go as long as you want so long as you've got what you need in the right balance.

When the diet goes astray, eventually it results in frustration, which can encourage hopping away from a game before it's done. At the very least, it may create a yearning for an experience that will fulfill a need that a player or GM has been lacking.

Remember that each person is an individual; it may also behoove a group to consider their overall tastes and preferences and make sure that the game they settle on is one that works equally well for everyone.

Coming to a Decision

The ultimate answer to how long a campaign should be depends on you. There's no shame in a shorter game–a great campaign may generate many great moments, but short games do too. Sometimes the best stories come from a short one-shot (consider the Tomb of Horrors, a classic D&D module known for its infamous party-killing potential). One of my favorite gaming moments came from a one-shot where one of the players had a hidden identity that was revealed only at the end.


Since I mentioned it, I figured I should share it. My mic is awful throughout, my apologies.

Having an open line of communication to clear up expectations is important here. If everyone is in agreement, the outcome doesn't matter.

If you really want a long game, you need to make sure that everything is being met from the side of player and GM expectations and satisfaction. Gaming should be fun, and if becomes unpleasant then the whole point is defeated.

Wrapping Up

Campaigns in a roleplaying game can be any length, but the secret is to make sure that it's an intentional decision. It's easy to have a long campaign as part of a social experience, but if you're more serious about the game and playing with strangers or have other activities you could be doing you need to make sure that it's going to be something that everyone finds value in.

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