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GMing: What Keeps Long Running Campaigns Exciting?

You have a new campaign to start. You need a starting location, NPCs, and an adventure. Months later, you need to make an adventure for a 14th level party who need strong NPCs and monsters to face. Which of the two are you more excited to create?


If you chose the latter then kudos to you. For most GMs though, campaigns don’t last into the highest levels of D&D and even for other systems there is the constant threat of GM burnout. So what do we as a GM do about it? And why do so many of use enjoy that new RPG smell and first few adventures so much more than the later adventures?

Let’s flip this on its head for a moment. Why do you like a long running TV series? Why are so many of us bummed with only one season of Firefly? What makes a long running novel, TV, or movie series so compelling?

For Firefly, I wanted to learn more about the men with hands of blue. I wanted to find out the secrets of the protagonists. I wanted more conflict and action and actually making smart decisions instead of stupid ones. I wanted more worlds building. More on the Reavers. More ships. More, more, more. Based on that, I would think as GMs we would like that as well in long running campaigns. However, how much do RPGs typically change over time?

For 1st level D&D the PCs fight monsters and gain magic items. What happens at 15th level? In later editions, the PCs fight monsters and gain magic items. Yes, some GMs take things in a different direction, but the underlying rules still provide XP for monster slaying and magic items and levels as rewards. But looking at what those innovative GMs do is a good start. I think GMs get bored. If I handed out a +1 sword for killing orcs how excited am I to hand a +3 sword for killing giants? The players get new abilities and take over more and more of the world. While the GM sees his creations cut down and looted.

There is some hyperbole there of course. But really, how accurate is that idea? I think pretty close to reality.

In a perfect world, the GM would gain lots of satisfaction from seeing the PCs grow and prosper. Would enjoy seeing her own world and campaign take on a life of its own. The reality is, though, that the players usually don’t care about your world building. And the rules only provide a GM with so many tools to challenge PCs. So a dichotomy develops.

The players consume, grow in power, and have more power to consume more. Meanwhile, the GM’s bag of tricks becomes more and more depleted as she scrambles to continue to challenge the ever growing might of the PCs. No harm is meant by either side, but I do think this is what happens to many campaigns and to the GMs who love to run them.

As a GM, I enjoy seeing my friends encounter novel experiences and figure out what to do about them. I think that this challenge happens more often at the start of a campaign then midway through or at the end unless I am very diligent. And I have to work harder to make it happen the longer a campaign runs simply because the PCs are more powerful with more tools available to overcome my campaign’s challenges.

New Novel Challenges

Some GMs introduce new concepts and new challenges to combat ennui. Traveling the planes, stronghold and kingdom building along with wars, underwater adventures, space travel, and plumbing the depths of the Underdark are all great campaign expanding concepts. GMs will have a bit of work, of course, to introduce and implement these ideas.

Deep Interesting Secrets

Other GMs seed deep secrets in the campaign that MATTER to the players. The crux of the problem is first getting the players to care more about something other than XP and loot. But what? And how to get them there?

Nefarious Interfering Villains

Then the GM uses that caring about something as the precious thing the PCs must keep the villains from trampling on, spoiling, and preventing from ever flowering to fruition. If the men with hands of blue constantly stop the PCs from doing what they want in the world then they are going to want to know all about them now. I discussed this idea in my NPC article.

These topics warrant further consideration and deeper analysis. Also the question should be considered: is a long-term campaign even something that a GM should strive towards? I will return to these ideas as I strive to overcome this mystery of why and how to keep a campaign running a long time. A good place to start is with varying the types of challenges experienced PCs face, seeding deep interesting secrets for PCs to uncover, and creating NPCs that drive conflict. I would enjoy hearing about any long running campaigns you have run, how they went, and what you did as a GM to keep going.
 
Charles Dunwoody

Comments


nevin

Explorer
the way I handle it to is as players do things I make notes of the consequences and try to keep track of how the world reacts to the PCs actions. Done right by the time they get to 14 they should be scrambling to fix all the unintended consequences of all the things they've done and all the enemies they've made
 

the way I handle it to is as players do things I make notes of the consequences and try to keep track of how the world reacts to the PCs actions. Done right by the time they get to 14 they should be scrambling to fix all the unintended consequences of all the things they've done and all the enemies they've made
Great way to do it. Helps prevent GM burnout as the PCs are creating adventures as they go and the players stay engaged because so much is going on.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
Imo A long running campaign is often desirable if you have a consistent group of players and a reasonably consistent GM. It enables them to keep playing characters they enjoy and to try and solve mysteries of the world. I have a consistent group of players who I’ve played with for about 10 years (some of the group I played with 40 years ago). We played a few paizo adventure paths and finished them in about 18 months each. The problem is the characters essentially investigate 1 mystery(Rise of the Runelords, Crimson Throne etc) ; then get to be very powerful when they solve it so you have to retire that character. It feels like there is no depth to their experiences. Conan was a Barbarian, a pirate, a wanderer a freebooter a conquerer etc. So about 5 years ago we decided to slow things down, homebrew it (using a mash up of a few adventure paths as fodder). I award xp at 1/10 the set rate, the characters are now 8th level, they have explored multiple dungeons, been mind flayer thralls, upset an attempt by a rival nation to secretly take over their main cities mayor, accidentally freed a lich from a prison, fought in the army against Orcus worshipping orcs and many other things - they haven’t figured out exactly how the yuan-ti expect to resurrect their dead god, what the Orcus worshipping Orcs stole from the city mausoleum during the war and while they know the Underdark is in the middle of a decades long war that has displaced the drow they haven’t poked their noses into it too much. At the moment they are short on cash so are following a map to an ancient ruined city hoping to get some coin.

Sorry for the wall of text - in short it‘s about exploring new stuff but with familiar characters.
 

I try to mix a healthy dose of world-building into my adventures. Somehow I try to follow the advice from the old Dungeoncraft articles: associate secrets and mystery with the adventures. So, besides treasure I usually bury a lot of information about the history and state of the world into an adventure. Also, I keep looking at the NPCs the group likes to interact with, and the villains they let get away.

More recently I've learned to embrace the more gonzo ideas of D&D like plane travel and other prime material planes. I can use that to gradually raise the stakes in my campaign. My last successful campaign had in retrospect a tier structure. First Tier was about defeating my all-time favorite monsters: gnolls who were led by an undead dwarven queen. Second Tier was about stopping an everlasting winter. Third Tier involved defeating a plot of the nagpa and basically saving their campaign world and the Raven Queen. At that time we decided to end the campaign since I didn't have a Tier 4 story arc. The campaign was an astounding success. I got them to care about their campaign world. It was a homebrew, but when a nagpa pointed out that this world didn't matter, since there were so many other worlds like the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, etc and that the end of their world didn't have to be the end of the PCs, the PCs countered: "But this is our world!". I was immensely pleased to hear that. I purposefully name-dropped official campaign settings that I know the players like.
 

How many sessions do you need to be consider "long running" ? 50? 100?

In the last ten years I've ran four campaign of over 50+ session. All homebrew campaigns. Its a lot of work to build that much content. I have to steal a lot from myself. Luckily i moved so two campaigns were with one group and two with another.

My current campaign is at 86 and seems healthy but the longer it goes the harder it is. More because low level play is easier to write for.
 

Ringtail

World Traveller
When you create your own world, you run the risk of your players not caring. When you run in a campaign setting, you run the risk of the players knowing everything. For example, if we play in the Forgotten Realms and bump into the Zhentarim, I already know all about them, there isn't much mystery. If I wanted to know more I could look it up, there's plenty written about them. You might argue "well the DM can change their world to be unique", which I would agree with, but in my experience those changes are often small. Rewriting the entire Zhentarim (as an example) to be completely fresh is so much work, it kind of defeats the purpose of using an existing setting.

Of course I have had players who DID care about my world or who DIDN't Know about the Zhentarim. It obviously varies from player to player.

I look forward most to character development. Situations that challenge my characters beliefs. Also I look forward to the backstory rearing its ugly head in a climatic way. If there was some unfinished business or ripe plot hooks in the character's backstory I would probably save those for later in the campaign as a great way to suck in a player. After all that's what players care about most, their characters.
 

oriaxx77

Explorer
Imo A long running campaign is often desirable if you have a consistent group of players and a reasonably consistent GM. It enables them to keep playing characters they enjoy and to try and solve mysteries of the world. I have a consistent group of players who I’ve played with for about 10 years (some of the group I played with 40 years ago). We played a few paizo adventure paths and finished them in about 18 months each. The problem is the characters essentially investigate 1 mystery(Rise of the Runelords, Crimson Throne etc) ; then get to be very powerful when they solve it so you have to retire that character. It feels like there is no depth to their experiences. Conan was a Barbarian, a pirate, a wanderer a freebooter a conquerer etc. So about 5 years ago we decided to slow things down, homebrew it (using a mash up of a few adventure paths as fodder). I award xp at 1/10 the set rate, the characters are now 8th level, they have explored multiple dungeons, been mind flayer thralls, upset an attempt by a rival nation to secretly take over their main cities mayor, accidentally freed a lich from a prison, fought in the army against Orcus worshipping orcs and many other things - they haven’t figured out exactly how the yuan-ti expect to resurrect their dead god, what the Orcus worshipping Orcs stole from the city mausoleum during the war and while they know the Underdark is in the middle of a decades long war that has displaced the drow they haven’t poked their noses into it too much. At the moment they are short on cash so are following a map to an ancient ruined city hoping to get some coin.

Sorry for the wall of text - in short it‘s about exploring new stuff but with familiar characters.
We did the same. After 4 years the party reached lvl 14. ToA was just 2 levels. Everyone loved the pace.
 

Retreater

Legend
Sometimes one great season is all you get, and you end up with Serenity, which most consider a letdown.
IMO, the modern rules (2000 onward) don't do a great job with high level play, because play doesn't really change. Dungeons get stranger and challenge the party with new traps and hazards, and monsters gain new abilities, but it's still just a dungeon with monsters. Reading the Champion, Master, and Immortals rules recently (for the first time) has been enlightening about how the scope of the game can change.
So long as a DM is running the game the same way they did at low levels, they might as well stay in that wheelhouse. Continue the campaign with different characters to explore new mysteries.
 

manduck

Explorer
With a long running campaign, I have a few things I do to keep it interesting and keep players going.

I let the players help build the world. It gets them involved and more inclined to care about the world. There are no lone wolf murder hobos in my games. Everyone has family, friends, enemies and rivals. So the players tell me who those people are. Then they tell me about where the come from and what it's like. I let them create their own little piece of the world. Then I play all those characters and let them interact with their loved ones. Makes it tough on them when I put those loved ones in danger. Have people they know show up in unexpected locations. "Yeah, I joined the city guard and was transferred to this outpost on the edge of the city". Meanwhile you know that gang of marauders is heading for that very outpost and it's going to be a big problem.

The PC's victories and failures all count. They have an impact on the world with everything they do. It all counts and it all comes around again. They make friends and enemies. The PCs are a big deal and wherever they go it will makes waves of some kind.

I give them a villain to hate. Someone who hounds them and their loved ones at every turn. Some working against them in the shadows. Someone who will gloat at every move they make to cause the PCs to suffer. Someone the PC's just have to get the better of.

I like to vary up the locations. Change scenery and let that introduce new advantages and problems. Even plane jumping. It also showcases the world they helped create and makes them eager to explore more.

I try to mix up their battles, which also ties into the different locations. One adventure could have them battling goblins deep in the forest. Another could have them leaping atop a flying dragon in the icy peaks of a mountain range. They could be protecting a city under siege. Mix it up and give them things to interact with other than just fighting the monsters. Perhaps that PC in the mountains wants to ground that dragon with an avalanche of snow and rock. Perhaps the PCs hide in the trees to ambush the goblins or burst from the city gates to take control of siege engine. Give them things to do beside roll dice and shout out damage numbers.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
My sandbox game has made it to level 10 now. The way I keep things interesting is constantly introducing new threads every session. While this has allowed them to abandon certain quests and slowed them down from time to time it makes the world seem richer. I also keep track of what they have let fester so things continue to grow, and generally get worse, in their absence.

I had already introduced the idea that we are stopping at around level 12. I like running high level adventures but I don't enjoy designing them. So much to think about.

Because they basically behave like a mercenary band, the fact that many players have joined and left keeps things somewhat interesting and makes sense as well. It sure is hard to keep players long term in these VTT days.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
It's funny. My current homebrew campaign (set roughly around Sea of Fallen Stars) I had L1-4 and L17-20 figured out. But the middle stuff I had no idea, and tbh wasn't super hype about the middle stuff. I even asked my players after they finished up to L4 if maybe we could just skip to the monkey, and they could narrate a paragraph or two about what had happened inside.

But noooo, they wanted to fill in the middle with adventure. And FUN! How dare they! Didn't they know my carefully crafted railr... ahem ...story was non-negotiable? The outcome is certain - when they get to L17, they will be at Sigil, at a negotiating table between a faction of Hags, Aboleths, and Mind Flayers with a coalition of Gith, Giff, Tortles, and Loxodons on the other side. D&D would be perfect if there weren't any players 🙃
 

Getting player investment is a big part, indeed. Once you've got that, you're golden. If the players care about the world and care about their characters, that will take a campaign far on its own.

Knowing when to stop is also important. Dexter and The Walking Dead are both perfect examples of going too long.
 

Tsuga C

Explorer
New Novel Challenges

Deep Interesting Secrets

Nefarious Interfering Villains
Player Backgrounds

Require each player to submit a reasonably detailed background on their character before the campaign begins. If their history is at odds with what you're in the process of shaping for your milieu, contemplate the history as presented for a few days and offer the player an array of two to four choices that are more consistent with your milieu. Like a composer transposing a chord from one musical key to another, the array of choices offered should capture the spirit of the player's desired background while modifying it to be more consistent with the campaign type and the overall world you are creating.

With your players' histories in harmony with your world-building efforts, keeping the PCs engaged is substantially easier when they never totally escape their collective past. Maybe they can eventually put old issues to rest for the most part or maybe certain aspects of the past of this or that PC continue to impact their individual lives and those of their party members. Either way, having a substantial and nuanced background to work with is a big help.
 

I think there are pros and cons to both a short or a long term campaign. Each allows you to do certain things, to focus the game in certain areas, to explore certain ideas.

My 5E campaign, for example, which we've been playing since the edition launched (though it's on hiatus right now until we can play face to face again) has actually become a continuation of our original campaign that my group and I played as kids in the early 90s. So it has many elements dating back to those days. So to make that meaningful and interesting, we lean into that. It's very much about the lore from our old games, and also the roots of the game. The primary villains are all either classic D&D villains like Iggwilv, Eclavdra, Snurre, and Yeenoghu or else long standing villains from our old games. It's based in Sigil, but also has connections to Oerth, Faerun, Athas, Golarion, and other worlds. This allows us to play with characters and concepts from all the campaigns we've played over the years. There's a very generational aspect to it.....our PCs from the old days are kind of the old guard and they're guiding the next generation of heroes.

So it's a combination of nostalgia and also just embracing all of D&D lore as the setting. It's a bit gonzo at times, and the PCs are borderline epic in their capability. But when you start throwing demigods and demon lords at them, things stay interesting.

Balanced against this I've been playing a lot of other games that are intentionally the opposite. We've played a short Alien Campaign that we may or may not pick back up again. We've played a couple of campaigns of Blades in the Dark, and I'm planning a third when this current one wraps. I've kept these other games shorter by comparison because I want to scratch a different itch, so to speak, and because I want to actually have some stories conclude. Things are a bit more grounded in these games, and the concerns and threats are more immediate. Alien is about getting off the ship alive, for instance. Blades in the Dark is more ongoing, but always centered on the gang, even when it diverts into character specific areas. It's the story of the crew, and most such stories in Doskvol end poorly.

I think that ultimately, it's best not to decide these things ahead of time, but instead see how it all goes in play, and keep going until it makes sense not to keep going. But once it seems like an end is in order, don't put it off. Let it happen. Several of the D&D campaigns we've played over the years which I've kind of folded into the 5E campaign described above, deserved to have some kind of satisfying end. I wish I had realized that back in the days when they were played.
 

Touc's Tips for Long Running Campaigns:

I've run 2 campaigns to level 20 in AD&D after roughly 2+ years of play apiece. In 3.5, ran one to 16th level after almost 2 years, then quit to run Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, ran Kingmaker to 15th level, then quit when a key player went back to school. In 5E, completed 2 pre-written campaigns (Out of the Abyss & Curse of Strahd) at almost exactly 1 year apiece with the same players.

So, that's my resume. Here's my findings:
  • Consistency. The AD&D days were during school and grad school. We had a lot more free time then, before kids and full-time jobs and pulled some all-nighters in the dorms. So, I credit that with the ability to game every week and keep the stories and characters fresh in our heads. I ran nothing more fancy than a hodge-podge of pre-fab modules and encounters that I mashed together into a barely cohesive narrative. Today, I'm very lucky if it's 3x a month, but it's the expectation that every week, we aim to go.
  • We're all Friends. Like consistency, it's easier to play long-term if people are friends and look forward to seeing each other every week. When you lose one to a job or move, it can be a catalyst for starting over so you don't have to introduce a new gamer to an ongoing campaign where s/he won't get things like those inside jokes. I don't have the same players as I did in high school, but it's essential.
  • Breaks. You've gotta take a break every couple months and do something non-D&D: a bad fantasy movie from the 80s, a cooperative board game, a night out at the bar, and so on. Recharges everyone's batteries and contributes to friends.
  • Love of the Game. If you offer to take a road trip to a gaming convention (when they resume, obviously), and your fellow gamers are psyched about it, you've got some love of the game. For long-term campaigns, I've found those types of gamers are in it for the long haul.
Conclusion: It's not really what you run. It's who you run it with that makes for greatest success in a long-term game.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
I do think you have to be careful with too many threads to explore. Or rather not giving players the opportunity to resolve threads. Your players are both your participants and your audience. Looking at TV series one has to be careful not to have an X-files effect where there was this background story about the smoking man and aliens that seemed pretty cool but never really resolved (or if It did it was in the movie by which time I had lost interest) vs Buffy where in each Season they had an overarching plot that resolved satisfactorily.
Sometimes having a single mainstring mystery can be good to keep the party focussed. I have run Night Below which I converted to a 1-20 3.5e adventure as a 6 year campaign with one onion style story, and I have run a 15 year campaign with multiple storyline threads that kinda petered out partially due to real world stuff but partially because the players lost track of what they were doing and why amongst the tangled threads. At that stage I hadn’t learned that it’s important to let threads end and let the players have a complete victory over a bad guy - if they want to keep,playing those characters in that world a new one will always come along they can hate just as much (the Buffy model).
I still think I put too many threads into the game such that it can become bewildering but as long as some are regularly being resolved satisfactorily I think I’m ok. In my latest long running multiple story arc game the party has largely finished with a story arc involving the Scarlet Brotherhood’s attempt to take over the city. They have won that battle and can feel good about it.

The other important thing to remember is that all players have different levels of buy in and involvement, and value different rewards. Those who have a deeper storyline buy in often enjoy the exploration and mystery solving parts of the campaign just for themselves but for those who take a less in depth approach to the world you need to have other rewards - they may not care about the party going on an adventure to try disrupt the alliance between the orcs and the exiled drow - they might however be excited to get a magic shield and a formula that will enable the town or party alchemis/herbalist to make enhanced healing potions.
 

Touc's Tips for Long Running Campaigns:

I've run 2 campaigns to level 20 in AD&D after roughly 2+ years of play apiece. In 3.5, ran one to 16th level after almost 2 years, then quit to run Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, ran Kingmaker to 15th level, then quit when a key player went back to school. In 5E, completed 2 pre-written campaigns (Out of the Abyss & Curse of Strahd) at almost exactly 1 year apiece with the same players.

So, that's my resume. Here's my findings:
  • Consistency. The AD&D days were during school and grad school. We had a lot more free time then, before kids and full-time jobs and pulled some all-nighters in the dorms. So, I credit that with the ability to game every week and keep the stories and characters fresh in our heads. I ran nothing more fancy than a hodge-podge of pre-fab modules and encounters that I mashed together into a barely cohesive narrative. Today, I'm very lucky if it's 3x a month, but it's the expectation that every week, we aim to go.
  • We're all Friends. Like consistency, it's easier to play long-term if people are friends and look forward to seeing each other every week. When you lose one to a job or move, it can be a catalyst for starting over so you don't have to introduce a new gamer to an ongoing campaign where s/he won't get things like those inside jokes. I don't have the same players as I did in high school, but it's essential.
  • Breaks. You've gotta take a break every couple months and do something non-D&D: a bad fantasy movie from the 80s, a cooperative board game, a night out at the bar, and so on. Recharges everyone's batteries and contributes to friends.
  • Love of the Game. If you offer to take a road trip to a gaming convention (when they resume, obviously), and your fellow gamers are psyched about it, you've got some love of the game. For long-term campaigns, I've found those types of gamers are in it for the long haul.
Conclusion: It's not really what you run. It's who you run it with that makes for greatest success in a long-term game.
I always end up with a mix of people who want to be friends outside of RPGs and those that just want to game. My current group as a whole just wants want to play RPGs but two out of the group will do other things as well.

I agree that you have to love RPGs for long term play. Marriages have two people, bands have four, and RPG groups have five or more people. You have to really like what you're doing to keep the game going, going well, and being fun.
 

The other important thing to remember is that all players have different levels of buy in and involvement, and value different rewards. Those who have a deeper storyline buy in often enjoy the exploration and mystery solving parts of the campaign just for themselves but for those who take a less in depth approach to the world you need to have other rewards - they may not care about the party going on an adventure to try disrupt the alliance between the orcs and the exiled drow - they might however be excited to get a magic shield and a formula that will enable the town or party alchemis/herbalist to make enhanced healing potions.
This is a good point. And the buy in can vary based on what RPG you run. I don't just run D&D so the RPG we go with affects the buy in of various players differently campaign to campaign.
 

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