Long-Term Campaign Building

I write a lot about new RPGs including reviews of the most recent releases. But what about that RPG a GM sticks with in a campaign lasting months or even years? Even though I play every other week consistently and have done so for over two decades I’ve only had a couple of campaigns that lasted over a year. What would it take to have a favorite campaign last for over a year and is it worth even trying to make it happen? I want to tackle the second part of that question first.

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Map of The World Fantasy - Free image on Pixabay

Is It Worth It?

When I read the accounts of GMs and players of long term campaigns, the consensus is that the campaign is great and that returning to the same setting is rewarding. Of course, the sampling is biased since any players who dropped out are unlikely to post about playing in a long term campaign if they didn’t stick with it. But based on the GM feedback, I think it can be worthwhile of the player characters and the setting itself are interesting and fun. Like wanting that second season of Firefly we never got.

Does the GM Want to Make It Happen?

This might seem obvious, but not every GM wants to run a long term campaign. A GM might want to play a variety of systems or campaigns or not have to worry about long term burnout. I tend to jump system to system in campaigns that last a few months for example. However, my current campaign of The One Ring (2nd Edition) intrigues me enough that this campaign is on track to last longer. If you as the GM don’t want to run campaigns of over a year there is still value in finishing step one.

Step One: Finish Existing Campaigns

I used to have a bad habit of stopping campaigns in the middle and starting something new. In the middle might be with PC goals unfinished, the big bad undefeated, or even right in the middle of an adventure. I started working on actually finishing campaigns before I tried to run a long term campaign. I would rather play four campaigns in one year and finish each one than try to run two and stop both in the middle. If you can start to finish campaigns then I think the interest in running a longer campaign may start to develop naturally as you improve your campaign building and finishing skills. How to successfully finish a campaign is another topic all together and I might share my thoughts at that in a future article. It is an essential skill in any GM’s toolbox.

Step Two: Work with the Players to Finish at Least One Character Arc

Not all my players have arcs for their characters. But for those that do, I also worked on helping them finish at least the one arc before finishing the campaign. For example, in the Alien game I ran one PC was actually planning to betray the group to her corporation. I made sure the end of that campaign also included the betrayal by that PC. It was intense and well worth the effort. And just maybe we’ll return for a second season of Alien eventually.

Step Three: Find a Setting That Inspires You

This one took me a bit longer. I like the universe of Alien but it wasn’t until I ran The One Ring (2nd Edition) that I found a setting that inspired my creativity. I started out just creating various landmarks (location based mini-adventures) and running NPCs and cultures that interested me. This in turn hooked my players, whose Player-heroes started rebuilding the desolate lands around Lake Evendim. This led me to reading more about Eriador and Middle-earth and it inspired me with ideas for a year two to the campaign.

Step Four: Play the Next Season Instead of the Next Campaign

If you get all the way here, you are on your way. If your players and you enjoy wrapping up a campaign arc, you don’t have to stop and start a new campaign. If your mind swirls with new adventure ideas and the players have more arcs to explore, you are on the road to running a long term campaign.

My Year One The One Ring (2nd Edition) campaign lasted three months, which is about normal for me. However, instead of starting something new, I’m working on what I consider a new season of our already existing campaign. We’re moving away from Lake Evendim to a new location and I’m bringing in some new NPCs and cultures hinted at in the first season.

Even better, these NPCs, landmarks, cultures, and locations were all hinted at in the first season. I’m continuing the campaign because these seeds are ripe to grow into full-fledged landmarks and adventures. My players get the reward of both seeing their Player-heroes continue to grow as well as getting answers to some of these teased mysteries they found in season one of the campaign.

Conclusions

I’m never going to force myself to GM something except campaign conclusions and if a campaign seems to be wrapping up instead of rolling on, I plan to finish it with some kind of conclusion. If, however, like my Middle-earth setting, the campaign continues to inspire me I’m going to roll on and see what happens next. This excitement is similar to, but in many ways better, than the excitement that is generated by a new campaign kickoff. I don’t have to worry about learning brand new rules for example and I have many adventure ideas to offer my players instead of just a few. And some of these adventures stem from actions they have taken directly in game. I can’t wait to play and see what happens next in season two of our campaign.
 

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
I've run a 16-yr campaign and two 10-11 yr campaigns, and played in a 16-yr campaign. My current Swords of the Serpentine campaign is about three years old. I'm a big fan of this style of play. I've moved towards playing in Seasons, like seasons of TV shows, each of which gets wrapped up excitingly. Then after the season ends we choose whether to continue or do a different game.

If I had to pick one GM-influenced thing that defines the success of a long campaign, it's consequences. Players need to see that their actions are fundamentally changing the world around them, and adventures need to occur that could have never happened if the PCs hadn't been involved with an earlier adventure. If you can show that the PCs help shape the world, I think players are more likely to come back to see what happened next.
 
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payn

Legend
Couple things seem to keep me from the long term setting campaign. I don't like high level play much (+10 level). I have been enjoying the adventure path model where you have a specific experience start to finish. I did spend about 10 years over 6-8 different adventure paths in Golarion so I don't know if that would count or not?
 

I've ran 4 campaign in the latest ten years. Three had 50 ish sessions and one was about 120. As a player in that time three campaign of 10 to 20 sessions. And a few that fizzled out after 2 to 5.

I think sessions is they way to count campaigns not years. I've found that A every other week game probably does 23 sessions a year were a weekly game might do 46. That's a big differance in game time..

But even that can be subjective because my 50 session campaign of 4 hour sessions that takes about 14 months to do is probably about equal in game time to my 20 session campaign of 10 to 14 hour sessions back in high school that took 6 weeks over a summer break.

But I also get that staying focused on one game and setting over time can be hard. With all the different systems out there. During all of my last 4 campaigns I ran some one shots or small 3 session mini series. Some campaign adjacent and some not but these broke up my focus and helped keep breaknup the routine.
 


Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I have run several long-running campaigns, 2 years to 4 years long, and I really enjoy them. As a GM, I find that the longer I stay with one setting/group/campaign, the easier it gets to generate material for that campaign.

Side note: I've never cared for adventure paths, back to the very first one in Dungeon Magazine. I like stringing together adventures and modules, tailored to the interests of my players, and the big, long plot just doesn't really facilitate that style to my satisfaction.

I truly believe that Point #4 up above is the most important, though. It's OK to have a long term villain in mind or something like that, but I have found the greatest satisfaction in a story that developed episodically according to what the players/characters wanted to do. I've had success in various editions of D&D as well as DCC and other games with this approach.
 
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payn

Legend
I have run several long-running campaigns, 2 years to 4 years long, and I really enjoy them. As a GM, I find that the longer I stay with one setting/group/campaign, the easier it gets to generate material for that campaign.

Side note: I've never cared for adventure paths, back to the very first one in Dragon Magazine. I like stringing together adventures and modules, tailored to the interests of my players, and the big, long plot just doesn't really facilitate that style to my satisfaction.

I truly believe that Point #4 up above is the most important, though. It's OK to have a long term villain in mind or something like that, but I have found the greatest satisfaction in a story that developed episodically according to what the players/characters wanted to do. I've had success in various editions of D&D as well as DCC and other games with this approach.
I'm the opposite. As a player, I find GMs rarely cater to my interests. The adventure paths give me something to work with and expect from GMs. Even a sandbox needs a theme in my opinion of course. Open sandboxes that cater to whatever the players want always fizzle quickly because of how aimless they often are. A good AP can last 1-2 years easy. I do find Pirates of Drinax for Traveller to be an exception to the sandbox campaign. The players are given a very lofty goal during session 1 so everything they do has a purpose. YMMV.
 

Hand of Evil

Hero
Epic
My games are not long term, only running 6 to 9 months but for the last few years have taken place within the same campaign setting, the world of the Witcher using the video game companion world book and Zweihander rule system. Before that, it was Warhammer. I do have my own setting but have rarely played in it.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I'm the opposite. As a player, I find GMs rarely cater to my interests. The adventure paths give me something to work with and expect from GMs. Even a sandbox needs a theme in my opinion of course. Open sandboxes that cater to whatever the players want always fizzle quickly because of how aimless they often are. A good AP can last 1-2 years easy. I do find Pirates of Drinax for Traveller to be an exception to the sandbox campaign. The players are given a very lofty goal during session 1 so everything they do has a purpose. YMMV.
I agree on "sandbox" campaigns - an entirely player directed campaign tends to just implode IME.

What I do is choose adventure modules that cater to the players interests and their characters' backstories. For example, in a Primeval Thule campaign I ran years ago, I chose an aftermath-of-a-heist style adventure because I knew the rogue and the rogue's player would get a spotlight, then ran another stop-the-demon-summoning adventure and tied it into the barbarian's and warlock's mutual history. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and every adventure lets the whole group do their thing.

This approach keeps the game feeling personal and intense, and I really like that. I've had multiple players tell me I ran their favorite D&D campaigns they've ever played, so if we believe them it seems I'm not alone in my feelings.
 
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payn

Legend
I agree on "sandbox" campaigns - an entirely player directed campaign tends to just implode IME.

What I do is choose adventure modules that cater to the players interests and their characters' backstories. For example, in a Primeval Thule campaign I ran years ago, I chose an aftermath-of-a-heist style adventure because I knew the rogue and the rogue's player would get a spotlight, then ran another stop-the-demon-summoning adventure and tied it into the barbarian's and warlock's mutual history. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and every adventure lets the whole group do their thing.

This approach keeps the game feeling personal and intense, and I really like that. I've had multiple players tell me I wan their D&D campaigns they've ever played, so if we believe them it seems I'm not alone in my feelings.
Nice approach. I would worry that modules in this style might be too specific to one PC and the rest might feel like fish out of water. Another reason I like APs is players guides usually put together a team that fits what the modules toss at them thematically. Though, I do think module jumping allows the campaign to switch it up so you are not locked into the same adventure type for long periods of time.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Nice approach. I would worry that modules in this style might be too specific to one PC and the rest might feel like fish out of water. Another reason I like APs is players guides usually put together a team that fits what the modules toss at them thematically. Though, I do think module jumping allows the campaign to switch it up so you are not locked into the same adventure type for long periods of time.
In that Thule campaign, we met weekly and we'd get through a module generally in a session or two. So nobody hogged the spotlight for long even when it happened.

But the three PCs were also brothers cast out from their tribe and trying to make their fortune, so they had a shared history and vested interest in each other anyway.

It was an awesome campaign, and I'm still sad that the one player moved across the country and it had to end.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I'm running two campaigns at the moment, both in the same setting. One's been going for something like four years, the other for coming up on three (99 and 65 sessions, both every other week). I've been enjoying the hell out of running them, and (best I can tell) the players have been enjoying the hell out of playing in them.

My approach is pretty straightforward. Ask for (but do not insist on) short backstories for the PCs. Drop the PCs into a situation where the smelly stuff is hitting one or more nearby fans. While the PCs are resolving that, start weaving in other threads, other directions, other possible goals--some of which come from the backstories the players gave me. Don't prep more than like the current session, re-use old prep if the PCs didn't get to it, have ideas looking ahead but not set plans.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
My last three completed campaigns ran 4 years, 7 years, 4.5 years. I am currently running a bi-weekly game that is well over a year and a half and still has plenty of room to go - they are in the Act 2 of this particular over-arc, but completing Act 3 isn't the end of the campaign.

I 100% homebrew setting and adventures, and really involve my players in helping to flesh out the world and the direction things go. For players willing to try their characters into the world (backstories as well as actions during the game) I try to have character arcs for all of them that I weave around and into other adventures that are happening. Very often where a campaign ends is never a place I would have envisioned before starting, because so much is guided by player interest and character actions.

I don't return to settings generally, though I have. I have too many setting ideas that I want to run to do that. Same reason I won't recreate a previous character in a new game.

Oh, and different game systems can contribute to length or lack of a campaign. I'm also running a Masks: A New Generation teen supers PbtA game, and the big questions there are "who am I, and where do I fit in the world?" - these questions and the advancement system won't handle four years of play.
 
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gwek4580

Explorer
I'm always been a bit of a "serial monogamist" when it comes to roleplaying. I HAVE run some sorter games, but they've usually been breaks between longer games. I've run at least a half dozen games that have lasted more than 50 sessions, with my longest (in terms of years) being a 10-year, 120+ session Star Wars campaign that ran four "seasons." I didn't always track number of sessions, but I think two of my superhero games clocked more sessions (back when my group used to play weekly instead of monthly). I've found that some of the keys are flexibility, but also having the right framework.

Using the right medium as a storytelling model can help with pacing. For example, many of my early campaigns were superhero games, and I structured them like comics, with each session being an "issue." On one hand, that allowed each session to be a discrete story, or to end with a cliffhanger, but it also meant that the story was a rolling tale that didn't necessarily escalate. Which is fine for superheroes; there's always another supervillain about to come along. Once time, I did a fantasy campaign that ran about four years and was structured as a trilogy of books. That allowed me to shift the tone and escalate the stakes of the story twice, and the end of each "book." TV - especially streaming/"prestige" TV provides a great model, where you can have a series of interlocking/overlapping stories, escalation to a season (and potentially mid-season) finale, and a new Big Bad (or at story arc) with every new season.

The flexibility comes in dealing with the players and allowing them the power to disrupt a carefully planned story. What I try to do these days is make sure each player has their own agenda and potential character arc... preferably sometimes at odds with one another. In my Star Wars game, one player was a Jedi Padawan sent out to the fringe, while a second was a ruthless pitfighter who wanted to put an end to slavery. These two sometimes had compatible goals, but were often very much at odds in terms of methods. A third player was a gunslinger on a path of vengeance who often found himself pulled between these two. The fourth player was a conman who wanted to build a criminal empire. He was happy to work with anyone who wanted to work with him as long as there was money involved. One season culminated in the Jedi becoming the Sector Watchman, the gunslinger killing his nemesis (in a public event), and the pitfighter killing an influential businessman who was secretly behind a slavery ring. Although the Jedi achieved a goal in her "promotion," her first task was to bring two of her closest allies to justice for the very public murders they had just committed.

One of the biggest challenges in a really long-term campaign is escalation of power. Eventually, the players will become so powerful and/or influential that very little can challenge them. Don't be afraid to let them (to use old D&D parlance) "build a stronghold." Early in my Star Wars game, the players were all crew on a ship together, a la Firefly. As the campaign progressed, they became owners of the ship, with more ability to set their own agendas. By the end of the campaign, the Jedi was, as noted, Sector Watchman, with a network of operatives. The pitfighter had started his own anti-slavery organization, composed of many of the slaves he'd freed earlier in the campaign, and the gunslinger, after having killed his nemesis, decided he wanted to do something good, and became a lawman, leading a loose coalition of gunslingers, rangers, and rogues. (The fourth player eventually left and was replaced by a succession of other characters, culminating in a Jedi who was sent to keep an eye on the Sector Watchman, almost like an Internal Affairs agent).
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I don't return to settings generally, though I have. I have too many setting ideas that I want to run to do that. Same reason I won't recreate a previous character in a new game.
I am the same - too many possibilities to keep coming back to the same campaign. Not saying I won't in the future; but haven't gotten there so far...

That said, I HAVE run Phandelver twice, both of which took over 12+ sessions. So I guess those are "long term" campaigns - we only played once a month, so they both took at least 18 months I think. One of which we moved to Dragons Ice Spire Peak with one of the players transitioning to a brand new GM (so proud 😁 ); and then he decided to start at L1 again with Tyranny of Dragons.

The other we started early in Pandemic, and are probably 1-2 sessions away from finishing Phandelver and moving to Tamoachan then Tsojcanth then Tharizdun then Giants G1-3 (or maybe I'll use the Yawning Portal versions) then D1-3 then Q1 (Queen of Demonweb Pits). With that amibitious roadmap, probably won't be done until 2026 or 7... I have run things in Greyhawk way back in high school (the main setting in early 80s); but I'm actually setting these in a notional Forgotten Realms setting - but somewhat abstracted to "generic" fantasy setting using the FR map. So I wouldn't call this a setting repeat, at least for me.

There is a tension for me - my players like long-term campaigns, but I tend to have a lot of ideas for campaigns. PLUS I like to play other games besides 5e. Essentially - too many settings not enough time...
 

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
There is a tension for me - my players like long-term campaigns, but I tend to have a lot of ideas for campaigns. PLUS I like to play other games besides 5e. Essentially - too many settings not enough time...
Yep. After my 16-yr-long campaign I realized that I needed to make them shorter, or I'd only get in another two or three before I died of old age. Somehow, that seemed unsatisfying. :D
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Long essay warning. :)

To first answer two questions posed by the OP:

Is It Worth It?

Yes.

Does the GM Want to Make It Happen?

Yes. This is essential! If the DM doesn't go in with an up-front attitude of "I'm building this campaign/setting/game with the expectation it'll last for the rest of my life and-or as long as anyone wants to play in it", then a long campaign probably won't happen.

Now, to clarify: by my definition a 2-year campaign still counts as Short; anything less is Very Short. I shoot for ten years and see how things go; so far my three have gone 10.5, 12, and 14+ years with the 14+ one still active on a total of 940-ish sessions played (for several of those years I was running twice a week - one group on Fridays and another on Sundays).

How to do this? While the OP's suggestions are good as far as they go, IMO they don't go nearly far enough...

Step One: Finish Existing Campaigns

Au contraire: don't finish anuything you don't have to. Sure, you can tie off a story arc that's embedded into a bigger campaign, but on the larger scale leave things open-ended such that there's always more for the PCs to do.

Step Two: Work with the Players to Finish at Least One Character Arc

And go several steps further. Allow and encourage the players to play and run multiple PCs in the setting and try to softly discourage always playing the same PC all the time. This slows down the overall level-advance rate while providing some variety in party composition. Allow and encourage players to cycle characters in and out of parties between adventures; or run two parties side-along in game time but consecutively in real time.

Step Three: Find a Setting That Inspires You

My answer here is to take the time and build your own setting. Get it right. Make sure you like the setting before trying to pitch it to any players, 'cause if you don't like it it'll show through clear as day. :)

Step Four: Play the Next Season Instead of the Next Campaign

If you get all the way here, you are on your way. If your players and you enjoy wrapping up a campaign arc, you don’t have to stop and start a new campaign. If your mind swirls with new adventure ideas and the players have more arcs to explore, you are on the road to running a long term campaign.
One suggestion here is to, before the game even starts, storyboard out a string of possible adventures and-or story arcs you could see yourself running during the campaign. Don't marry yourself to the storyboard - it's ironclad sure that the players will mess it up somehow, and that's a good thing - but do marry yourself to the idea that this is intended to be much more than just a one-arc campaign.

When I started my current game I storyboarded out three or four multi-adventure story arcs (almost like mini adventure paths) that I could embed into the campaign as the PCs got to various different levels, plus a dozen or so stand-alone adventures I could plug in anywhere. I think there were about 30 adventures on that initial storyboard...and by the third adventure in play I was already changing the hell out of it. :)

And if the players latch on to something in the setting and come up with a story/adventure idea you didn't initially have in mind, go with it!

BUT

There's some other key things the OP didn't touch on which really need to be mentioned:

Step Five: Expect Some Player Turnover

As a very-long campaign goes on, real life is inevitably going to rear its ugly head. Always have a backup plan in case one or two of your players suddenly have to drop out either temporarily or permanently. Never assume the players who start the game will be the players who finish it; IME one or two tend to run most or all the way through while others come and go over the years. The two constants are the setting and the DM; after that, everything is malleable.

Along with this and even more so, Step 5A is Expect (and in some cases hope for) Lots of Character Turnover. A ten-plus year campaign allows a player time to explore numerous character arcs and ideas - some will work, some won't. Allow players to retire characters whenever they like, assuming said characters survive so long; and don't necessarily be shy about - fairly and neutrally - killing them off. Let the dice fall where they may.

And I've left the most important suggestion for last:

Step Six: Slow Down Level Advancement. A Lot.

In any system in which characters gain levels and-or power as they go along, it is inevitable that if left unchecked sooner or later those characters are going to get to a point where their level/power is simply too high or too great for the system to adequately support. Modern D&D hands out levels like candy and in so doing ensures short campaigns; here you want to do exactly the opposite. It might require a hard conversation with some players used to modern D&D and its ilk, but levelling needs to become (and become seen as) an occasional side effect of ongoing play rather than the main reason for it.

If the system only decently supports, say, 15 levels; and you're looking for a ten-plus year campaign, that means the average party level can't really go up by more than 1 or 2 a year or else you'll run out of viable levels before you run out of campaign. Sure, individual characters might advance a bit faster; it's the average that needs watching. This is where players cycling PCs in and out can become very useful, as can the idea of bringing in new or replacement PCs at a level slightly lower than the existing party average. (side note: probably best to avoid systems that expect - or worse, demand - the PCs in a party to always each be at the same level, it just doesn't work)

Hope this all helps - sorry there's not a TL;DR version. :)
 

Marandahir

Crown-Forester (he/him)
Ummm… that map is literally Australia, Korea, annd Greenland smooshed into one land mass, with the Japanese isle of Shikoku forming a second continent across an inner sea and a tiny China to the northwest, a tiny Norway to the northeast, and probably a bunch of other countries or intranational islands making up the other continents/islands…
 

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
Ummm… that map is literally Australia, Korea, annd Greenland smooshed into one land mass, with the Japanese isle of Shikoku forming a second continent across an inner sea and a tiny China to the northwest, a tiny Norway to the northeast, and probably a bunch of other countries or intranational islands making up the other continents/islands…
Truly, what great GM doesn't borrow from at least a BIT of pre-existing content? :D
 

My early years of gaming (1979-83) happened in a university gaming society, where there were over a dozen DMs, each with their own world, and characters could move between them easily. That made the concept of a limited duration campaign silly: you just picked a character from your stock for whatever scenario you fancied joining.

Even though I use more conventional structures these days, the concept of a campaign with only one main goal or objective seems weird. When we play RPGs, we're looking into a world that has to be considered as having existed before we started playing in it, and will continue after we stop. If I run out of ideas for a setting I'm running, that's a failure on my part, not a natural thing to happen. Making use of real history or mythology in some way is very useful in avoiding that, since there's always more weirdness that you can base things on.

Of course, the characters may run out of challenges in some way. My Infinite Cabal campaign, which ran fortnightly from 2011 to 2020 ended when the characters replaced the supervisor of the universe with an NPC who was a friend of theirs, in co-operation with the Greek gods. The occult WWII campaign I played in from 2007 to 2021 ran out of war, but two further strands of it are starting up, under different GMs, set in different parts of the world.
 

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