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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

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
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.

I found more simple RPGs work less for long campaigns. Less options for the characters seem to make things a little stale. Learend that leson with a game that is still really great. In Darkest Warrens.
 

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Jd Smith1

Adventurer
What keeps it exciting?

Me as a GM. :cool:

The key is managing expectations, and in the setting.

Your players need to know that you're planning 50-70 sessions, and the setting requires both depth and opportunities for personal involvement.

For example, our current campaign is set in Degenesis, a post-apoc setting. Six of the ten OCs (each player runs two) belong to factions (called cults in the setting, but I changed that), which have unique obligations, rewards, and internal politics. four are non-faction members, but each has his own agenda (usually much simpler ones). On top of that, the group as a whole has its own objectives (not a minor one of which is the eternal hunt for money and better equipment), and in addition, the politics of the world around them intrude quite regularly.

 

I've run several long campaigns over a variety of RPGs. In general I've found that good campaigns have a life cycle, usually defined by a story or story arc. A campaign can be only the length of a long adventure, if you have a narrow focus for the story. A long campaign requires either an epic story or a series of story arcs. Story arcs don't have to be connect, but ideally you want a series of story arcs that lead to an epic story. My current D&D campaign is broken up into 3 arcs: Saltmarsh, Amedo Jungle, and the Final Enemy, where each leads to the next, but they're completely different from each other, keeping things fresh. I ran a Legend of the Five Rings campaign that most consider two different campaigns, because the Scorpion Clan Coup occurred in the middle, derailing everything. While it's possible to run a true sandbox campaign without any significant story, it is more difficult to come up with interesting adventures as the party gets higher in level.
 

Schmoe

Adventurer
Honestly, I'm tired of low-level adventures. I've run more introductory adventures than I care to count, and while they are fun, I find them generally predictable and uninteresting. Instead, I like the increasing freedom and the way the challenges change moving to higher tiers. I want to see what kind of characters the players create, and how they work together in the game, and I want to see how that evolves. For me, the long play is the game, and for that reason one-shot adventures don't typically interest me. Some things that help:

  • Long-term villains or goals that are well out of reach at the beginning of the game
  • Mysteries that are gradually revealed
  • Character backgrounds
  • Changing locations
  • Characters that grow within the world (recognition, prestige, influence)
 

der_kluge

Adventurer
I agree with Toucanbuzz that long-term success hinges on the players. To that extent, real life seems to be the primary reason why a campaign stops IME.

I also really liked the comment about dragging out the XP and making leveling up REALLY slow. That's a very interesting idea, but it would likely be hard to implement universally. Like, PbP, for example, would never survive such a thing. I'd also argue for moving to level 2 relatively quickly, so the PCs don't suffer a TPK too easily.

I think the key thing is, that it's actually difficult to pull off. It requires a lot of work. I don't think the world really matters so much. Forgotten Realms, homebrew, Eberron; whatever floats your boat. All of it can be used. I think the key thing, for me at least, is to think small. NPCs matter, and motivation matters. Tying the PCs backgrounds into the worlds matter. It's one thing to have a good storyline that the players can follow, but there needs to be stuff in the middle, and around the edges. I have a story quest in my campaign - it doesn't really even start until level 5. It's purpose built for this kind of thing - finding all the pieces to the rod of seven parts. This is my own take on that artifact, and the effects of that. But I'm CONSTANTLY looking for side-quests (some small, some complex) that I can use to fill in the gaps. Otherwise, it's just hopping from piece to piece.

Speaking of which, if anyone has any good side-quest ideas, or can point me to some good resources, I'm all ears. :)
 

pming

Adventurer
Hiya!

"Simple", really... ;) Here's all you have to do as a DM...

Realize that the hard-back, full-colour, 200 page "Epic Adventure Story Adventure Book" is the Red Herring; what the Players choose for their PC's to do is what the actual campaign's story is.

:)

Wanna keep them, and yourself, interested in playing the same PC's over 7 years of weekly games? Ok... stop trying to "run adventure stories" that you bought or have pre-written in excruciating detail, from the uber-mega-double-top-secret BBEG and his/her/it's plans, to the plots and reasoning of every so-called 'important' NPC in the pre-written 'story'. News Flash! The NPC's aren't important; the PC's are. Twist News Flash! The PC's aren't important either. ;)

What do I mean by the PC's aren't "important"? Simple: Let the game play out and the dice do their part...if a PC dies, well, obviously that PC was not 'chosen to defeat the Evil Shadow-Source'. If the PC lives and defeats the Evil Shadow-Source, then I get they were the chosen one. PC's shouldn't be assumed to be 'destined for greatness', and every story/plot you have as a DM is just an idea of a possibility; don't fall into the trap of thinking YOUR story is more important and better than the Players sitting around the table. Surprise News Flash! It's NOT your story! It's theirs. Let them tell it, you just fill in the blanks.

Do that... accept your job as a "presenter of the world, without bias, and with internal consistency...and not as ultimate story narrative director", and let your Players drive the bus. Hard for a Player to get 'board' with something when they are the ones deciding what to do in the first place. ;)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
My answer is deceptively simple: player buy-in.

IME, that really only happens if you do a good job with the campaign’s initial setup. If you do it right, your players‘ enthusiasm will constantly replenish your wellspring of ideas. They’ll talk to each other (and you) about things they want their PCs to do. And if you just take it all in like a sponge, then keep the best stuff to incorporate alongside YOUR ideas, you get a surprisingly effective feedback loop.
 

Hiya!

"Simple", really... ;) Here's all you have to do as a DM...

Realize that the hard-back, full-colour, 200 page "Epic Adventure Story Adventure Book" is the Red Herring; what the Players choose for their PC's to do is what the actual campaign's story is.

:)

Wanna keep them, and yourself, interested in playing the same PC's over 7 years of weekly games? Ok... stop trying to "run adventure stories" that you bought or have pre-written in excruciating detail, from the uber-mega-double-top-secret BBEG and his/her/it's plans, to the plots and reasoning of every so-called 'important' NPC in the pre-written 'story'. News Flash! The NPC's aren't important; the PC's are. Twist News Flash! The PC's aren't important either. ;)

What do I mean by the PC's aren't "important"? Simple: Let the game play out and the dice do their part...if a PC dies, well, obviously that PC was not 'chosen to defeat the Evil Shadow-Source'. If the PC lives and defeats the Evil Shadow-Source, then I get they were the chosen one. PC's shouldn't be assumed to be 'destined for greatness', and every story/plot you have as a DM is just an idea of a possibility; don't fall into the trap of thinking YOUR story is more important and better than the Players sitting around the table. Surprise News Flash! It's NOT your story! It's theirs. Let them tell it, you just fill in the blanks.

Do that... accept your job as a "presenter of the world, without bias, and with internal consistency...and not as ultimate story narrative director", and let your Players drive the bus. Hard for a Player to get 'board' with something when they are the ones deciding what to do in the first place. ;)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
I have an upcoming article that goes into detail on this very idea. I do think the GM should be director, but director of the actors who are the PCs. Whether those actors are the main actors or secondary depends on how the game goes, how the dice fall, and what the players playing their characters choose to do. It may turn out some NPCs are the "stars" of the ongoing improv play. It doesn't matter though, as the PCs aren't watching the play, they are doing their part in the play and enjoying doing so. And that's okay if that is what the PCs want and how the game goes. You have to play to find out.

I think the best way to see this is if you are playing something like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. The PCs aren't the main story but who cares? I can enjoy the Mandalorian more than the movies sometimes.
 



Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
:unsure: Link not resolving for me...
It’s a DM’s tip.

During ChaGen, the DM asks for each player to generate reputational rumors about their characters: 2 good, 2 bad, and one false. Later, those rumors are distributed to the other players.

I like it because it gets people thinking about their party mates.

...AND because it makes players think a bit more about the nature of their own PC. After all, as formulated, only one of the rumors is false. So players have to think up something about their PC that is both true and not necessarily flattering.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
It’s a DM’s tip.

During ChaGen, the DM asks for each player to generate reputational rumors about their characters: 2 good, 2 bad, and one false. Later, those rumors are distributed to the other players.

I like it because it gets people thinking about their party mates.

...AND because it makes players think a bit more about the nature of their own PC. After all, as formulated, only one of the rumors is false. So players have to think up something about their PC that is both true and not necessarily flattering.
Oh that's a nice little technique.
 

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