GMing with Joy: How to Run a Year Long Campaign

Here is a practical guide for a gamemaster who wants to start a table top roleplaying game with a group of players characters and have a series of sessions turn into a year long campaign or longer. Using a waterslide instead of a railroad of course.

GMingwithjoy.jpg

Florida Globe Miami - Free photo on Pixabay - Pixabay

Basic Beginning

You own, build, maintain, and run a waterslide that shifts and moves during the ride and has become so big even you don’t know all its workings. Five of your friends are with you at the top which is so high that clouds hide the bottom which you can’t see. Even you don’t know when or where this waterslide ends.

You’re on a little ledge sticking out with binoculars so you can see a few of the upcoming curves, slides, drops, and branching splits where riders have to decide which direction to go. Your current riders, rafts in hand, cannot even see beyond the first curve from their vantage point.

They load into the chute. Their rafts are connected together with Velcro although with a bit of effort they can take different chutes at the splits. All of them are laughing and a bit nervous.

With no ado you give the back raft a great shove. One glorious shared shriek later and your friends hurtle toward the first curve and start picking up speed.

You watch. They make the curve and finally see the first drop you prepared. The rafts plummet down. The screaming-laughter and laughing-screams are music to your ears. But you have to be ready. After a short slower slide the first splitting branch is just ahead. You don’t know if they’ll all take the same one, split up, or maybe even one rider will leave the waterslide all together via the exit platform. You hope no one exits, but still you can’t wait to see what happens next.

Advanced Start

Kick the player characters down the waterslide.

It doesn’t matter if a player shows up with the wrong RPG rules because you confused them (give them the right rules and stop confusing them). Or if they went the extra mile and created a backstory that actually meshed with the campaign brief you sent out (keep that to build future branches and drops to reward them). Maybe they have no idea how their characters know each other or why they’d adventure together. Or even how the rules work. Just give them a shove.

Here’s a secret: The players are completely in charge of the rules behind their characters (though you oversee the rules and can make suggestions and even say no if needed of course) and they make every decision for that character once the campaign starts if the character remains in his or her right mind.

Once the Campaign Starts...

As GM, you are totally in charge of everything that happens before campaign kickoff. So shove them down the waterslide. Here are some hot campaign starts to consider. If you can foreshadow a bigger bad without inviting the PCs to get killed, all the better.

First Curve and Then the Drop!​

  • The PCs wake up in a lunatic asylum in strait jackets. Advanced option: if the RPG has sanity rules, the player decides how much sanity the PC has, but they DON’T tell you. The doc seeing them can restore some sanity but the methods are arduous enough that sane people lose sanity. If the doc is good he’ll figure it out. If not, some sane people are in for some rough treatments if they don’t convince him otherwise or escape. There might also be a murderous ghost….
  • The back room of the bar is barricaded. A candle fell over and a fire is about to spring into uncontrolled life. Whatever monsters broke in, started killing, and left bodies strewn all over the main room are just about to break in. Just a few people are left and they never even got a good look at the creatures trying to break in and tear them all apart. And who is driving the monsters here to kill?!
  • Aliens swoop done and kidnap the PCs and some NPCs. The aliens do unpleasant things to some NPCs. Then something explodes and kidnappers and abductees alike start plummeting toward the planet below and possible doom. While survival comes first, the PCs can’t help but wonder what horrible place/horrible being were the aliens taking the PCs to?!
  • Watch a great sci-fi/fantasy/horror/action movie and steal the first scene (if you can do something with Deadpool please post here!).

Expert Follow Up: Take Notes and the First Branching Split

The players will continue down the slide as long as they are able if the ride is thrilling. The GM will be thrilled if his or her players are thrilled by the waterslide.

Here’s another secret. GMs make worlds. GMs and player characters gaming together make lasting campaigns. PC actions and player input should have the biggest world building impact in an TTRPG campaign. PC actions and player input turned into future adventures by a skilled GM is where the thrills for the entire table come from. And they keep a campaign sliding along month after month after month.

With this explosion of a campaign start, take notes. See how the players problem solve. What are they afraid of. What do they think is happening. What do they want to do next. What NPCs or enemies survive. What locations didn’t burn down or explode.

Depending on the answers these events may hand you your next adventure. Or circumstances may dictate what needs to happen next. If the alien craft crashed and the PCs figured out how to survive, the PCs have to gather supplies and start exploring and hope their alien captors all perished. If they seem stuck have three or four options they could pursue next.

Next Branching Split​

  • Take a conflict from a backstory and turn it into a session of play.
  • An NPC from the first session asks for help because they were cursed/infected/stolen from/are being followed by whatever enemy (or its master) kicked off the first adventure.
  • The PCs inherit/are gifted/find/a seemingly abandoned location/ship/vehicle that would serve as a good base for them. But is it truly empty?
  • The enemy behind the attackers in the first adventure makes another move and the PCs get caught up in it. Were they the targets this time?!
Take more notes. Keep track of NPCs who survive, enemies and allies made, locations visited, ongoing conflict and drama in the larger world, party dynamics, and backstories that could intrude into the world right now.

Advanced Follow Up: Curves, Chutes, Drops, and Branching Splits

The more sessions you run, the greater your options become. You may want to draw your waterslide, showing NPCs and conflicts and locations and connect those that go together. You may see possible connections between two seemingly completely unrelated sessions that the players can’t see. Connect these points and your players will think you are a foreshadowing genius.


Basic Adventure Seeds: The Support Structure for the Waterslide

For adventure seeds you really just need a villain or monster, a location (bonus if there is a map), NPCs, and a bit of lore. Maybe special items or loot for PCs to find. Find your favorite RPGs and yank adventure seeds out to build the support structure for your waterslide. If the last session doesn’t spark the next session idea, grab a seed and build a new drop or curve. Connect back as connections become clear to you.

If you’re running a fantasy RPG check out Forbidden Lands or one of the hundreds of old school D&D (OSR) modules and support especially Old-School Essentials. If you’re running a horror RPG check out Leagues of Gothic Horror, Vaesen, or Call of Cthulhu. Sci-fi: so many Traveller resources and adventures. For action check out Twilight: 2000, Everyday Heroes and D20 Modern, and with a mix of horror, Delta Green.

Expert Ending?

Start with a bang. Build on the bang or what the PCs want to do next or a backstory element. Build on the build to the bang. If you get stuck, grab an adventure seed or convert some or most of a module. Rinse and repeat.

Just do this over and over again. Players may come and go (and they will be sad if life makes them exit the waterslide let me assure you) but the group of PCs and their collected adventures continue. One drop builds into a slide which branches and the ride goes on with the sound of the riders’ laughing-screams and screaming-laughter ringing in your ears. Embrace the gaming lifestyle and game on!

Wait, you want to know how the waterslide ends? Good idea. I’ll be back with more soon.

Your Turn: have you ever tried waterslide GMing? How well did it work for you?
 

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

I might be a little lost in the metaphor. Sounds like it starts with an exciting linear beginning that funnels into a non-linear campaign, which funnels back into a linear finish?

Yes, although I don't have the ending ready at the beginning (because the players haven't given me the direction they want to head towards). I think starting with a bang is great, let the players lead things, get an idea where things might end up, and then figure out how to bring everything to an actual ending based on the actions the PCs have taken in the campaign. I didn't have the word count to discuss how to wrap up a campaign instead of just having it fizzle out which I find unsatisfying, and I try to avoid. I'll cover my ideas on ending a campaign instead of just letting it fizzle out in another article and ask what tips and tricks other GMs have to wrapping a campaign up.
 

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Eh. I have a few problems with the metaphor, though its aims are sound. A less lyrical way of stating the same aims would be "bottom-up, player-driven sandbox".

I agree although I do like a good kick off and a solid end to book end a sandbox campaign. This approach is a little more focused than just asking the PCs to wander around a bit to see what interests them. All those choices can make it hard for players to know where to start. This approach aims to give the players some ideas where to start and to bring everything to a conclusion at a natural end point driven by campaign events and PC choices taken.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Yes, although I don't have the ending ready at the beginning (because the players haven't given me the direction they want to head towards). I think starting with a bang is great, let the players lead things, get an idea where things might end up, and then figure out how to bring everything to an actual ending based on the actions the PCs have taken in the campaign. I didn't have the word count to discuss how to wrap up a campaign instead of just having it fizzle out which I find unsatisfying, and I try to avoid. I'll cover my ideas on ending a campaign instead of just letting it fizzle out in another article and ask what tips and tricks other GMs have to wrapping a campaign up.
Gotcha. I have run Pirates of Drinax in Traveller a couple times. Starts out with the Travellers going on a "milk run" pirate mission to launch. They have a retired veteran pirate tagging along as a favor to a benefactor. The Travellers can take as much advantage of the vets knowledge during the run as they see fit. Afterwards, the game expands into a sandbox of empire building. Sounds a bit waterslide-ish to me.
 

Gotcha. I have run Pirates of Drinax in Traveller a couple times. Starts out with the Travellers going on a "milk run" pirate mission to launch. They have a retired veteran pirate tagging along as a favor to a benefactor. The Travellers can take as much advantage of the vets knowledge during the run as they see fit. Afterwards, the game expands into a sandbox of empire building. Sounds a bit waterslide-ish to me.

I ran Pirates when the PDFs were free. Great campaign. What you're talking about sounds like what I'm aiming for. I do think a sand box needs a solid ending as well. When the final political enemy is defeated, and the empire is in full swing for example.

Of course, if I ran Pirates again, I might start with the PCs' ship already being boarded and on fire. Or perhaps getting ready to crash and they are seeking a planet to land on. Something to get the blood pumping right away!
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I ran Pirates when the PDFs were free. Great campaign. What you're talking about sounds like what I'm aiming for. I do think a sand box needs a solid ending as well. When the final political enemy is defeated, and the empire is in full swing for example.

Of course, if I ran Pirates again, I might start with the PCs' ship already being boarded and on fire. Or perhaps getting ready to crash and they are seeking a planet to land on. Something to get the blood pumping right away!
I like the cut of your jib! One of the things that makes Pirates so successful is the main goal is very large and always looming. Anything the players want to explore and/or do can work towards it. I've seen a lot of games start with some smaller goal, like the PCs all looking for some shady hood that they find by the third session. Next question is, "now what?". The trick is to make the campaign seem like one long unpredictable slide ride instead of a never ending series of new slides rinse and repeat.
 

I like the cut of your jib! One of the things that makes Pirates so successful is the main goal is very large and always looming. Anything the players want to explore and/or do can work towards it. I've seen a lot of games start with some smaller goal, like the PCs all looking for some shady hood that they find by the third session. Next question is, "now what?". The trick is to make the campaign seem like one long unpredictable slide ride instead of a never ending series of new slides rinse and repeat.

Exactly! The campaign is one wild ride with many branches, not one short ride, then wait in line, then another ride, then wait in line. Even if players like the approach of many small slides, I would find what are basically continual one-shots extremely fatiguing and hard to build any momentum with. Because as the GM I'd be starting over each time and trying to get the players interested in this next small adventure instead of the PCs' actions drawing me along and showing me where to build the next drop or curve.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I ran Pirates when the PDFs were free. Great campaign. What you're talking about sounds like what I'm aiming for. I do think a sand box needs a solid ending as well.
Although if it has a hard-coded ending it isn't really a true sandbox, is it?
When the final political enemy is defeated, and the empire is in full swing for example.
That's not the end. That's one of those "pools" I talked about, where they've splashed off the end of one waterslide and can now take a bit of downtime before jumping on to the start of a choice of new slides:
--- they could become defenders of the empire, maybe even working as/with a navy against the same pirates they once called allies
--- they could become diplomats, helping negotiate the new empire's place in things be it by word or by force
--- they could go off and seek fame and fortune elsewhere, while leaving the new empire to its own devices
--- or they could just go back to being pirates, doing what they know and do best.

"The end" is never the end provided people want to keep playing and the GM wants to keep going.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Exactly! The campaign is one wild ride with many branches, not one short ride, then wait in line, then another ride, then wait in line. Even if players like the approach of many small slides, I would find what are basically continual one-shots extremely fatiguing and hard to build any momentum with.
That's where your advice about taking notes and making connections comes in; you can find ways of tying those one-shots together after the fact and make some of them look like foreshadowing even when they originally weren't. I'd like to say I do this all the time, but the reality is I only manage to pull it off once in a while. :)

And then the trick becomes one of getting the players to a) notice and b) care about these connections.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Although if it has a hard-coded ending it isn't really a true sandbox, is it?
Why not? If all the players decisions can factor in and shape that final campaign capstone adventure?
That's not the end. That's one of those "pools" I talked about, where they've splashed off the end of one waterslide and can now take a bit of downtime before jumping on to the start of a choice of new slides:
--- they could become defenders of the empire, maybe even working as/with a navy against the same pirates they once called allies
--- they could become diplomats, helping negotiate the new empire's place in things be it by word or by force
--- they could go off and seek fame and fortune elsewhere, while leaving the new empire to its own devices
--- or they could just go back to being pirates, doing what they know and do best.

"The end" is never the end provided people want to keep playing and the GM wants to keep going.
Sure, the waterslide could start anew, but some folks do like having an endcap to a campaign.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
That's where your advice about taking notes and making connections comes in; you can find ways of tying those one-shots together after the fact and make some of them look like foreshadowing even when they originally weren't. I'd like to say I do this all the time, but the reality is I only manage to pull it off once in a while. :)

And then the trick becomes one of getting the players to a) notice and b) care about these connections.
I've found discord to be wonderous in this aspect. I'm not a good note taker offline, but since playing online I've gotten much better at it. The shared resource is also great for keeping the group up to date. YMMV.
 

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