D&D 5E 2-year campaign coming to a close, closing thoughts

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
In 3 decades of DMing, I've had 3 campaigns in any edition go 2+ years, 15+ levels, AND completion. This, for good or ill, will be #4 (even if there's failure, the campaign will have its own unique ending).

We started a Kingmaker (5E conversion of a Paizo adventure path where players build a kingdom/barony, and deal with threats within and without) in late 2020, and about 2 years later, we're near the end. It's the longest running 5E campaign I've DMed, the longest campaign I've DMed since AD&D days, and all with a group of "new to D&D" players I met after moving states. So I'm reflecting. How did we achieve such longevity in a campaign, were there any rules we changed that helped, and would I do anything differently?

Longevity
  • Consistency. We aimed for every Sunday afternoon, 1-6pm, if at least 3/5 could make it. Sometimes it didn't work, sometimes we moved to a Saturday. But we always had a consistent goal. We used Discord. Every week, "game on" or if something needed changing advance notice. We also are consistent on location: my house with a dedicated game room every time.
  • Compatible personalities. Huge. We struck gold when gathering a group after I moved states. Everyone at the table meshed after our first go at a campaign, and that's a RARE event after decades of DMing. Usually, there's a "core" of 2-3 gamers and it takes months, if ever, to find others who mesh. That said, you'll know if you have it, and you can't be afraid to say to a player "it's not working out" versus forcing one personality into a group that doesn't mesh. And, we spend time chatting about non-D&D stuff. We'll spend 20 minutes pre-session chatting at the door about nothing. We find stuff to do outside D&D, such as supporting one gamer's art studio events by showing up.
  • Excitement. If you DM long enough, you'll find players "calling in sick." Whatever it might be, they're not excited about the next session. This is not something the DM can generate 100% by themselves. I later found the players would get together on Discord and chat about the campaign. We had a strong RP personality, and he took the reins in getting the others excited. He would take notes and, with his wife, chat up what all was going on. This has been a major factor. The trick for the DM is keeping everyone involved so the strong personality can get those others involved in their own storylines.
  • Excitement #2. I feel I'm hitting my stride as a DM, creating unique features and personalities in the game world, and stepping back and letting players create the action. I found the less time I spent talking, the better. If I saw one player not interacting as much, I would chip in to get them involved (e.g. the king's consort silences everyone and turns to your wizard...)
  • Slow it down. Enjoy the ride. We intentionally took it slow. It took months to get another level. Because there was no frantic dash to the next level, we've had a lot (at least 6+) sessions where it was 100% roleplay. Sounds crazy. No skill checks, combat? It can happen. You look at the clock and are astonished. Did 6 people just spend around 4 hours interacting with their game world? By slowing it down, players got used to their powers, used to their character's personality, developed their character, and interacted more with the game world to make it come alive. Those interactions spawned dozens of storylines I hadn't the faintest idea would occur beforehand, but I had enough backstory to make it happen. Notably, it wasn't all about getting to the next achievement. We had some really fun, unique NPC personalities, and the players had just as much fun interacting with those personalities as hack n slash (which they did in abundance, no worries about that part!)
  • End in sight. I always said we'd reach about 15th level. Of course, I could have advanced PC advancement, tried for 20th, but 15th is already insanely powerful enough. Having a goal (milestones) helped players take the game at their own pace. For example, I would announce a level would be gained for handling a minor threat (max 2), and another for a major threat to the barony.
  • Continuity AND change. Very few gamers will stick with a character through 2 years. That's a LONG time to not try anything different. We have 1 out of 5 with a starting character. That's on purpose. Players could have quested to try and bring their characters back from death. A few retired. A couple got married. One disappeared into oblivion. Some had, based on the local view on death, no desire to be raised. Through adventures, though, some players got cool changes. One (inspiration Wildermyth video game) gradually came to have ghostly limbs. One made a fey deal that cost him 20 years of life. They aren't the same characters as folks started out with. I also incorporated their retired NPCs into storylines, allowed them to come back in limited adventures, and become pieces of major storylines. This way, players could try new stuff without having to see a former character fade into nothing.
  • Player Death. Tying into the above, death was a real factor in our campaign. I've changed over the years to make death expand our storyline rather than shrink it, such as an early favor to a dryad leading to her sharing a way to the fey vale where reincarnation happens for fey, to partake in that process when a character death occurred. As with all things fey, it had a cost. But, I found most of the time, my gamers made the call to not be raised. It might be don't try to raise me. I'm okay. And this gave players a chance to try a new character. Other times, it was "let's do this" and we're off on some grand adventure, or calling in favors, or playing politics, or risking the ire of the gawd of death.

Rule Changes
I don't think our rules changes, by themselves, made the games last longer. But they did help with a common trouble area: speed of combats and slow high-level combats. If your game bogs down at higher levels, gamers have disincentive to play at higher levels. It's not much fun waiting 5 minutes between turns.
  • Roll your die initiative. I've posted my success over the last now 5 years using a turn-by-turn initiative system with declaration of action. High level play doesn't slow down because 5 players AND the DM are all picking an Action at the same time. No one waits 5 minutes between turns. It takes less than 1 minute for everyone to be ready no matter the level, and even quicker at lower levels. This is huge. I've been there, DMing games, and watching eyes glaze over, people checking their phone or thumbing through their PHB out of sheer boredom as a player, or two, took forever to decide what to do. It's an interest killer. This ties into the above "excitement" factor. At lower levels, with less options, this isn't really noticeable. But as spellbooks get bigger and players get more options, analysis paralysis becomes real. And if game-after-game, you find yourself spending more time sitting, staring, doing nothing, you're less excited to appear at the next session. You'd rather be playing a video game.
  • There's a few others that have been fun (max crits, bonus action healing potions, alternate death save rules, reach weapon attacks of opportunity), but the above has contributed more to making our combats enjoyable, fluid, and quick than anything else I could have done.

Would I do anything differently?
Ah, if we've gotten this far, I should say no. A complete high level, 2-year campaign in any edition of D&D is nothing to sneeze at. I did use the early campaign as a springboard for fine-tuning the initiative rules into a well-oiled machine, as well as an alternative to death saves. So, I would aim to not keep changing rules when possible.

I also abandoned our group website. I had ambitions to store everything cool there, but it was a chore, and everyone lost interest in it. They lost interest because they were spending so much time out-of-game chatting about it with one another! So, they didn't need a refresh. This falls under knowing the personalities of your gamers, which I was still discovering.

Insight aside, anyone else gotten this far a few times and reflected "how did this come together?"
 

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DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
My first 5E game went from levels 1-20 in about two years IRL.

As we were new to the edition, we didn't house-rule anything until 5th level to give the game "as is" a chance. Over the course of the campaign I added a lot of house-rules. The climax of the game involved challenging an archmage the PCs met at 5th level and nearly defeated (he was already weakened severely!), but he escaped to exact his revenge after recovering, nearly causing a TPK. Finally, years later in game time, the PCs returned to find out he was really causing problems so went to confront him.

Oddly enough, the players thought they defeated him, but in reality they didn't. The REAL wizard had actually joined them on the quest, pretending to be a much lower-level Warlock, of a different race even! They did, however, accomplish the goal of rescuing their wizard's key prisoner and escaping. I never told them the Wizard was actually still alive in case I wanted to bring him back for a rematch in the Epic Level adventure. :)

Over the years I've had about half-a-dozen campaigns reach 15+ levels. Three in AD&D, two in 2E, and then the one in 5E. The highest was AD&D, for four years IRL and the PCs got to levels in the mid-20's. I don't recall all of them, but I do remember the paladin made it to level 24.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
In 30 ish years of gaming I've never had a campaign go from 1-20. I think the longest went from 1 to 10 or 12 (it was a 2e game, so different characters were different levels at the end).

I've played in high level campaigns, but the characters were created as high level characters and not played up to that point.

Which I actually feel illustrates well the difficulty of playtesting high level material. A 15th level character I spent an hour creating will be very different - and very differently equipped - than a 15th character I played from level 1. The latter character will also almost definitely be FAR more powerful and capable; in the campaign I mentioned above, those 10th+ level characters were punching FAR above their weight.

In the 5e era I've never had a group stick together long enough to play to high levels. The longest 5e campaign I had was in 2015-2016 and the characters made it to level 8 or 9 before one player moved out of state and another got a new job that basically tanked the campaign.

I'm deeply envious of anyone who manages to keep things going long-term, for sure.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Do you have another thread on "Roll your die initiative"? Does the entire party act on the same turn and then the other side? Or do you have everyone decide what they are going to do and then resolve everything in initiative order? Do you let players change their actions based on what the enemies do? It is unclear to me from your description how your homebrew system works.

As for the topic at hand, I am currently running a campaign that is in its 4th year and most of the party is at level 17. Leveling is slower than typical 5e campaigns because we are using XP for GP. No XP for defeating monsters.

My first 5e campaign lasted almost two years and went from 1 to 20 but used milestone leveling with the intention to play through all levels, even if some levels were only for a single session (one session being 8 hours).

The two most important things for long term campaigns is having a good group of available players and avoiding DM burnout. After my first campaign, I shelved my homebrew world and ran published adventures in published campaign worlds.

What also helps is that I design my campaigns so that if a player can't make a session, it doesn't affect the session much. It is also easy for "guest" players to drop in. Which allows people to invite friends who can't commit to making every session. We commit to once per month and schedule the next session at the end of the current session. If we tried to stick to strict schedule, it would have fallen apart long ago. This allows the core players to make nearly every session. Also the session are 8 hours long, which makes it easier to avoid having the session end in the middle of something where we feel we really need every character to be at the next session.

We incorporate a lot of rules, both official and third party, for downtime activities so that players who are into it have a play-by-mail component between sessions.

This approach works well for me and my players, most of whom have been playing with me since 2015.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Do you have another thread on "Roll your die initiative"? Does the entire party act on the same turn and then the other side? Or do you have everyone decide what they are going to do and then resolve everything in initiative order? Do you let players change their actions based on what the enemies do? It is unclear to me from your description how your homebrew system works.
Current version attached. Covers those questions, but in a nutshell, each round everyone commits to a PHB Action and rolls a single die based off that choice (e.g. I'm using my glaive, I'm retrieving an item from my backpack, I'm casting fireball). Everything else, including how to carry out that action, movement, and bonus actions, occur on your regular turn. Instead of a random d20, your single die roll is your initiative, with lower numbers better.

In 5+ years of gameplay, it's faster than d20 ever was, for me, as all 5 players and the DM are all deciding what to do in roughly the same 30-second span. Players have to think strategically and there is no guarantee from round-to-round when you'll act. After a few combats, my gamers had the attached table memorized. It's pretty simple and lets player decisions influence initiative rolls. If you've got a mind for numbers, you can apply the same rules to monsters. I use their HD instead because it got tricky to track large numbers of enemies with diverse abilities.
 

Attachments

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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Current version attached. Covers those questions, but in a nutshell, each round everyone commits to a PHB Action and rolls a single die based off that choice (e.g. I'm using my glaive, I'm retrieving an item from my backpack, I'm casting fireball). Everything else, including how to carry out that action, movement, and bonus actions, occur on your regular turn. Instead of a random d20, your single die roll is your initiative, with lower numbers better.

In 5+ years of gameplay, it's faster than d20 ever was, for me, as all 5 players and the DM are all deciding what to do in roughly the same 30-second span. Players have to think strategically and there is no guarantee from round-to-round when you'll act. After a few combats, my gamers had the attached table memorized. It's pretty simple and lets player decisions influence initiative rolls. If you've got a mind for numbers, you can apply the same rules to monsters. I use their HD instead because it got tricky to track large numbers of enemies with diverse abilities.
Interesting. Thank you for sharing. Reminds me of Mike Mearle's alternative initiative system. He was arguing for it to bring more drama to combat. It is interesting that your experience indicates that it can save time as well.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Congrats on the campaign hitting its finale! That's a great accomplishment.

And thanks for sharing your dynamic initiative system and your experience with it enhancing your game. I definitely want to try! Could I ask how you handled a player declaring one thing, but then due to circumstances changing, then changing their mind to attempt something different (which would have a different initiative die)?
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Could I ask how you handled a player declaring one thing, but then due to circumstances changing, then changing their mind to attempt something different (which would have a different initiative die)?
If a player declared fireball and wants to change spells later, they can't. Your declared action commits you to grabbing your sword, starting your motions for casting, etc. So, the initiative die never changes. Same for monsters. If the dragon is taking in a deep breath and the PCs scatter, it has a decision to make about how it implements its Action.

One your turn, if fireball seems a waste, one could cast a bonus action spell (never declared), or sub in a Dodge, Disengage, or Dodge (thereby not losing a spell slot).

This was a major source of debate years ago when weighing hypothetical pros and cons. However, in 5+ years of gameplay, it's been a pro. I've seen a change in gamer planning so they don't pick an Action that doesn't fit the field. Mobility options have become a huge factor, and spellbook selection has become more of a big deal.

Like real battles, they may not go predictably (whereas in a fixed system, you always know you'll go before the orcs, after the archer). So, you have to plan accordingly, going with the "best at the time" option rather than the "perfect" option.
 

I have three campaigns currently running. Two of them should wrap up within the next 3 - 6 months. One is a a 5E D&D campaign that should finish around 10th level. The other is a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign that will reach 10th level (and beyond). 10th is the level cap for SotDL.

Not long ago I finished a 5E campaign that ran for 122 sessions, took over 3 years, and reached 20th level with 7 epic boons. I believe the PCs had over 500K experience each. Some lessons:
  • Completing a full 20th level campaign felt great!
  • Playing the full 20+ levels was a grind at times. Each individual session was fun, but there was a sort of psychological weight that grew over time. I wanted to take a break and recharge, but I was afraid doing so would sap momentum and cause the campaign to fall apart.
  • 5E rules hold up even at high levels, but 5E monsters do not.
  • Campaign pacing was more important than I realized. At the speed of me and my groups, we can get through a 20th level campaign in 80 - 100 sessions. The campaign should have been paced to reflect that. Tier 1 and Tier 4 both go by really fast, so it's important to resolve most storylines in Tier 3. If I could do it all over again, I could have gotten to the point much faster.
  • The best parts of the campaign were things I never planned for.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
  • Campaign pacing was more important than I realized. At the speed of me and my groups, we can get through a 20th level campaign in 80 - 100 sessions. The campaign should have been paced to reflect that. Tier 1 and Tier 4 both go by really fast, so it's important to resolve most storylines in Tier 3. If I could do it all over again, I could have gotten to the point much faster.

Curious, did you use XP or milestone leveling (or something else)?
 

If a player declared fireball and wants to change spells later, they can't. Your declared action commits you to grabbing your sword, starting your motions for casting, etc. So, the initiative die never changes. Same for monsters. If the dragon is taking in a deep breath and the PCs scatter, it has a decision to make about how it implements its Action.
I have two questions please

1. Who declares first, the dragon or the PCs?
If the PCs know the dragon is about to unleash its breath weapon then they can take actions earlier to mitigate it.
If the DMs know the PCs are about to melee, then he can declare the dragons uses its breath weapon.

2. Hand crossbow - it is a light weapon (d4) with the loading property (d10) and the PC has the crossbow expert feat to ignore the loading property. So would it drop to d8?
 
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BookTenTiger

He / Him
Thanks for sharing these reflections! I've enjoyed reading about your dynamic initiative system over the years, I definitely want to try it out.

It sounds like you got really lucky with the dynamics of this group. In my last campaign, it was really hard to get some of the players to engage between sessions or in world-building. Though I was friends with them, the clash in play styles held back the game from being as enjoyable as it could have been.

How do you feel your campaign changed between low levels, mid levels, and high levels?
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
We aimed for every Sunday afternoon, 1-6pm
about 2 years

So would you say it was about 100 sessions total? Do you have a count of number of sessions?

My current first 5E campaign is currently at 41 sessions over the course of nearly 3 years (we'll hit 3 years and about 43 sessions in January). We play every 3 to 5 weeks. We're about to hit a potential end point, at which time the group will decide if we will continue with these characters of move on to something else.

My longest campaign that came to fruition (3E) was 104 sessions over 5 years (and one month) and we played every other week.

I think I am an outlier in that I aim for most of my campaigns to last multiple years and they almost always do, even if we don't come to a definitive end - and I have never had a campaign go past 11th level.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
I have two questions please

1. Who declares first, the dragon or the PCs?
If the PCs know the dragon is about to unleash its breath weapon then they can take actions earlier to mitigate it.
If the DMs know the PCs are about to melee, then he can declare the dragons uses its breath weapon.

2. Hand crossbow - it is a light weapon (d4) with the loading property (d10) and the PC has the crossbow expert feat to ignore the loading property. So would it drop to d8?
1. Technically, the DM secretly decides monster actions first and may drop a hint if enemy intent is obvious or a PC uses an appropriate item or skill (e.g. one goblin is eyeing the lever near the door).

In real play, there's not a lot of table talk and everything happens simultaneously. If you trust your players to be honest, there doesn't need to be any verbal declaration at all. Everyone honestly rolls their chosen Action die and we're off. If the players table chat to coordinate, I will adjust my monster tactics if possible. My players know this, and they will often make sure I know what language they're using (e.g. gnomish) to avoid tipping off the enemy that a fireball is coming.

2. Should be d4 because the PC ignores the Loading property that normally makes it a d10 initiative, leaving it to qualify as a Light weapon and giving the Feat some weight. We did experiment briefly with making an already-loaded aimed crossbow of any kind an initiative 1 action, but felt this was better left to DM discretion ("you're not going to run 30' before he can fire that aimed crossbow at you") rather than a hard and fast rule.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
How do you feel your campaign changed between low levels, mid levels, and high levels?
Low level were the formative years, so intentionally I slowed leveling. My players were relatively (2 years or less) new to D&D, and going slower seemed to help adjust to rules, knowing your spells, finding stuff in a book, deciding what character sheet you liked, and working on developing a personality more than a stat line. It was also a time when more "out of the box" play occurred, in retrospect, because with few character options, players got inventive finding alternatives to solving problems.
When defending a fort, they were looking for things to build defenses with. When their newly-formed barony had some naysayers, they cut a deal with a (bad) fey and accidentally invited a dragon to their realm. This was a time of light-hearted encounters, such as trying to find out who the graffiti artist was in town making obscene pictures of the PC baron, fey pranks, and accidentally creating the legend of the "invisible pervert" when one of the PCs turned invisible with the hopes of stealing a room key off the local attractive innkeep to investigate the room of a suspected foreign agent and instead botched the theft, striking her bottom. The PCs fed the legend to cover their botched operation, even going so far as to have their wizard offer "free safety spells" to ward entry into your home from this invisible bad guy, who became a legend. Anytime in town something odd happened, fruit fell off a wagon, etc., the locals blamed it on the invisible pervert.

Mid levels it got serious. I stopped inventorying food and water as much because the PCs were strong enough to either (1) make their own, (2) make a check to forage for their own, or (3) hastily get to a civilized area. Same with weather hazards. Solo fights with default 5E "boss" monsters became a joke, so I had to begin adjusting monsters and battles accordingly.

High level, I began skipping over anything but the big action events. No more travel events, stopped rolling random encounters in most places because it would have been a waste of time. Some bad guys were also using high-level powers, such as Commune or Scrying, just like the PCs, and I had to keep more copious notes. Solo monsters continue to be a joke. Every "boss" monster is customized, nothing default from the Monster Manual. I began to make heavy use of "timed" events to consume resources because a long rest is huge for high level PCs.
Our finale fey dungeon, for example, exists simultaneously in the past, present and future. The BBEG can "reset" the dungeon every 24 hours, restoring everything native to that place that was taken or killed to its original place. Thus, her minions are fanatics, knowing they really truly can't be destroyed. It's a true challenge of resource management as the PCs unraveled how to find the BBEG, who exists in a fable.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
So would you say it was about 100 sessions total? Do you have a count of number of sessions?
I never tracked, but we're pretty consistent with averaging 3x a month, roughly 4 hours of actual gameplay each. That'd roughly translate to 72 sessions to get to 15th level.
I think I am an outlier in that I aim for most of my campaigns to last multiple years and they almost always do, even if we don't come to a definitive end - and I have never had a campaign go past 11th level.
With the right group, I'm of the same mindset, though it depends on the campaign. I highly enjoyed Curse of Strahd with a prior group, and that took exactly 1 year to the month, 9th level, to finish.
 

payn

Legend
Jealous. I had a very good run from 2009 until about 2020. Completed 4.5 campaigns which each took 2 years. Had a good solid group but real life stuff and a pandemic ended it.

I have a fun group I play with online with folks around the country. Though, they cant stick with anything for more than a month or two.
 

OB1

Jedi Master
I've had 2 1-20 campaigns in 5e (never had one in previous editions).

The first was in a completely homebrewed world, played in person with 3 players, and took about 4 years, but only about 70 sessions, each session lasting 5-6 hours. It started in the playtest, and we played when we could, sometimes taking breaks as long as 10 months.

The second started shortly after pandemic lock-downs, played on Roll20 with 5 players, and took 2 years and around 90 4 hour sessions. It began with the free Wildemount module, then continued using EGtW as a guide.

In both cases, I think the longevity of the campaigns came from three major factors.

The first, and most important, was each group. 2 of the original 3 went on to the second campaign, and in both, the level of trust and support between everyone was tremendous. It was luck both times that brought us together, but it was work by everyone to keep it going for so long.

The second, I believe, is that I never planned for more than the current Tier the PCs were in. This allowed the campaign to evolve based on the choices of not just me, but the PCs and the random luck of the dice. I could never have predicted the end of either game at the beginning. The story told in both was truly a collaborative effort between Fate (DM), Choice (PCs) and Chance (dice).

Finally, I believe 5e itself is responsible. I'd count 5 of the 6 players between the two campaigns as 'casual' D&D fans, and everyone had busy lives and responsibilities. But 5e is designed in a way that casual players can come in and have a great time even if they are not hard core gamers. Mistakes can be made in combat without things falling apart. And the rules can be left behind for a weird encounter or adventure to do something completely outside of the framework, and then snap back later. The game can flow between skill checks, TOM and grid based battle in a single encounter based on what is appropriate for the moment. It can leave dice rolls behind for hours at a time and still pull on the lore to guide the story. It encourages bold experimentation, knowing that you can always go back to the framework if you need.
 


el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I had a thread about this a ways back, but I think one of the strongest contributing factors to having a long term group (aside from general camaraderie and everyone being into it/having similar expectations) is having a clear method for scheduling sessions or handling changes when you have a set schedule.

My group aims for every 3 to 5 weeks and the session ends when have scheduled the next meet up and everyone knows to arrive with a group of possible dates and flexibility for re-scheduling (we usually play on Saturday afternoons, but out next session is a Friday evening) and then short of an emergency, we prioritize that date. We also sometimes bring someone in virtually when needed (as when people had covid exposures).

I think having a DM who has tools for being prepped and not burning out also helps, but I only assume I have those tools because I can't remember even one time when I scheduled to run a game and did not feel up it. Even once when I found out on gameday that a close relative was in the hospital and was very worried but was hundreds of miles away and not in a position to go see them until the next day, I still ran my game. Though in that kind of situation being with friends and having something to do is preferable for me than having nothing to do but sit and worry.
 

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