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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In my current campaign, I encourage the players to write the recaps from their character's point of view. They get in game currency (a Style Point as we're using Ubiquity) for doing so.

Only one has done so up to now, but another player plans to start. The great thing is I can pull what they really like directly from these recaps as they write down what really stuck with them. And it cuts down on my workload! And keeps them involved in the campaign.
For me, doing the logs myself allows me to make sure key bits of information are preserved just in case the players weren't listening at the time or - more often - so I don't forget it later.

Your idea with the Style Points reward is great if it works for you, but I really don't like the idea of out-of-game activities earning in-game rewards. I'm not familiar with Ubiquity so won't comment further on that.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
@payn And again I learn things!

I thought all of the APs these days were published as single (or at the very least very few) books. I wasn't aware that they were being published in smaller parts. That would also bring it much closer to "adapting a standalone".
They're published as whole books but in many cases you can easily enough split out one chapter or piece as a standalone.

Princes of the Apocalypse is a good example. Supposedly a 1-15 level adventure path for 5e, it can easily be seen as 15 or so stand-alone adventures all in one book once you strip out the connecting bits and backstory. And those adventures very conveniently cover a big range of levels, so there's something for everyone. :)
Also your comment about "kit"/"dungeon" is kind of what I'm alluding to - if you're used to fully pre-built adventures, running into a sandbox is a bit jarring, and a lot more effort on the GMs part than expected. Even if you're used to rolling and adapting your own adventures, transitioning from a top-down/GM-driven/non-sandbox campaign to a bottom-up/player-driven/sandbox is a big adjustment.
IME in a long campaign it goes back and forth as a mix - sometimes the players drive, sometimes the GM drives.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
@payn And again I learn things!

I thought all of the APs these days were published as single (or at the very least very few) books. I wasn't aware that they were being published in smaller parts. That would also bring it much closer to "adapting a standalone".
WotC might be a bit different. I think they only publish a couple hardcovers each year. Paizo puts out a monthly 96 page softcover/PDF. Each chapter of the PF AP is essentially a module in the old school sense. Many of them, could be stripped out and ran as such, but may need a little editing. Others are more finally tuned to the long running campaign and might be poor choices.

During the PF1 run, the APs typically covered levels 1-14/18. High level 3E is pretty beastly. Many of the 6th and final chapters, were essentially megadungeons to capstone the AP and add enough content to challenge a high level group. I often changed them to stop around level 12-14 as I found high level gets too gonzo and long in the tooth for me.

Interesting enough, PF2 was sold as being quite capable of going 1-20 without issue. However, Paizo started messing with the formula and has been doing level 1-10 and level 10-20 APs instead of full level 1-20 APs. This makes a lot of sense to me as a campaign that spans 10 levels is a good deal of time to be spent on a single campaign. Lot of folks burn out before committing to that level of campaign.
Also your comment about "kit"/"dungeon" is kind of what I'm alluding to - if you're used to fully pre-built adventures, running into a sandbox is a bit jarring, and a lot more effort on the GMs part than expected. Even if you're used to rolling and adapting your own adventures, transitioning from a top-down/GM-driven/non-sandbox campaign to a bottom-up/player-driven/sandbox is a big adjustment.
It is indeed. There has been a lot of discussion about how the Paizo and WotC modules should be more Top-down/GM driven and/or more material released on how to GM a kit package that isnt strictly a run by the numbers module.
 

GuardianLurker

Adventurer
They're published as whole books but in many cases you can easily enough split out one chapter or piece as a standalone.

... it can easily be seen as ... stand-alone adventures all in one book once you strip out the connecting bits and backstory.
Yeah, that's the cut-n-lift I was talking about. If you've never done it, it can be intimidating. Especially if you think you'll have to replace every single monster and npc as part of the process. After you've done it once or twice, you come to realize that most of the time all you have to do is (as you say) rework the connections and backstory. BUT. Until you've done it, it looks really intimidating.

And, from what I've observed, a lot of people are either too frightened, or too lazy, to take that first step. I suspect that most of ENWorld's audience isn't in that group, as they've been around a while.
 

Your idea with the Style Points reward is great if it works for you, but I really don't like the idea of out-of-game activities earning in-game rewards. I'm not familiar with Ubiquity so won't comment further on that.
I've heard that rebuttal before, but AD&D showed me a different way. Players out-of-game tried to roll high ability scores and even 18s to get in-game rewards that lasted whole campaigns. I think 5E still has players rolling 4d6 at least as one option, so the idea of out-of-game activities affecting in-game activities seems sound to me. It has been around for decades, ever since the beginning of the hobby. I still remember players of fighters trying to roll 100 to go with an 18 strength to be as strong as ogres!
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I've heard that rebuttal before, but AD&D showed me a different way. Players out-of-game tried to roll high ability scores and even 18s to get in-game rewards that lasted whole campaigns. I think 5E still has players rolling 4d6 at least as one option, so the idea of out-of-game activities affecting in-game activities seems sound to me. It has been around for decades, ever since the beginning of the hobby. I still remember players of fighters trying to roll 100 to go with an 18 strength to be as strong as ogres!
With all due respect, rolling up a character is an in-game activity done at the table (one would hope!) with others there.

Writing out a game log, not so much. To me it's prep, just like designing adventures or drawing setting maps.
 

Railroading is, IMO, really overexaggerated online. Having a linear story is ok so long as the DM DOES change things based on player decisions, and accounts for their off the wall plans. The GM isn't an AI; they can't be held responsible for simulating literally any possible thing. I don't get why so many players have problems just respecting the prep.
 

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