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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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

So I have a love/hate relationship with my long campaign.

When 5e came out, we started a campaign. We began with Lost Mines of Phandelver, and then when it ended we talked about whether we’d like to continue playing 5e or not. As part of that discussion, I asked two of my long term players what they’d most like to see in play. Both of them asked that we resolve the unfinished elements of our original campaign from the 2e days.

So I reflected about campaigns that we’d not finished and so I decided to try and involve all of them in the 5e game.

So our 5e campaign has been going since 5e came out. But it also involves concepts and characters that date back to our earliest days as a group in the early 90s. It’s currently on hold since the pandemic; we’re saving the resumption of it for when we can all play together again.

The advantage of this is that my long time players are very engaged and very interested in seeing where things go. Another is that it essentially spans all of our lore and the greater D&D lore, as well… so there’s no shortage of material to use in play. From Snurre Ironbelly to Eclavdra to Iggwilv to Strahd, from Greyhawk to Faerun to Athas to Golarion to Sigil… all of it has a place and is involved in the game. It’s a plane/world hopping game of absurdly epic proportions. It’s a lot of fun in an over the top, superheroic kind of way.

The drawback is that at times, I feel obligated to do it. Like it’s this unfinished work that needs to be completed. And then couple that with the worry that however it ends, it won’t live up to decades worth of build up. It seems destined to let down, in that sense. Also, the two other players in the campaign have less involvement in some of our old campaign stuff. One joined our group near the end of that early era, and another is much newer, and so isn't familiar with any of it. For them, none of that stuff is more compelling than anything else we’d likely come up with.

And I think that’s the thing… I’m running a game of Spire right now with three of the same players in it. They’re all engaged as deeply as I've ever seen. The setting and the game are entirely new to them and they absolutely love it.

There’s nothing inherent about a decades long campaign that’s any more engaging than one only months along. Maybe the equivalent of some Easter Eggs for long time players? That’s about it.

So I think it’s simply another decision the GM and players should make about their games. Do they want to incorporate what’s come previously? It’s just a tool available to use if it suits and somehow adds to the experience.
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
There’s nothing inherent about a decades long campaign that’s any more engaging than one only months along. Maybe the equivalent of some Easter Eggs for long time players? That’s about it.

So I think it’s simply another decision the GM and players should make about their games. Do they want to incorporate what’s come previously? It’s just a tool available to use if it suits and somehow adds to the experience.
Campaigns should run as long as they need to. Some will wrap up quickly, others won't. I think incorporating events from prior play (or previous campaigns (or what I've seen called "setting continuity")) is different from campaign length, or at least can be. The events of one campaign can matter in another, regardless of how long the campaigns run.

The fact I spent years (probably close to a decade) playing with a GM who kept having new campaign ideas so quickly we never finished anything is almost certainly at least part of why I'm running long campaigns now.
 

Campaigns should run as long as they need to. Some will wrap up quickly, others won't. I think incorporating events from prior play (or previous campaigns (or what I've seen called "setting continuity")) is different from campaign length, or at least can be. The events of one campaign can matter in another, regardless of how long the campaigns run.

The fact I spent years (probably close to a decade) playing with a GM who kept having new campaign ideas so quickly we never finished anything is almost certainly at least part of why I'm running long campaigns now.

Yeah, I think that the length of the campaign is likely something that needs to be determined over the course of play. One may have an idea about what they think the length may turn out to be, or they may have a desire for a long or short campaign, but until things get going, I don't know how one can say how long a campaign will be.

I think part of it is also the term itself. For some people a campaign is the story of an individual group that makes its way through a series of adventures. For other people, the setting itself is the campaign, and they'll run any number of groups through any number of adventures and consider it all one campaign.

I usually stick to an individual group when I consider something a campaign, but that's just my take on it.

I find unfinished campaigns irksome for some reason, which is one of the reasons I incorporated so many of them into the lore of the 5e campaign I mentioned above.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Looking back at my decades in the hobby, I’ve been a participant in (as a player or GM) in long-running campaigns in a variety of systems and genres.

The #1 factor in all of them is some form of major buy in. Whether it’s deep investment in characters, a compelling storyline, a cool setting, a combination of those- or other- things makes people work harder at making the game last. And it really has to be a majority of the people involved. Too few happy players and the campaign will eventually grind to a halt.

And in saying that, I count the GM as effectively 2 players. If the GM burns out, everything in the campaign will suffer.
 
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Gilladian

Adventurer
I usually run games in my own campaign world. My current campaign is about a year and a half old. The PCs are nearing 10th level - this is quick and high level advancement for me, as I generally dislike high level play… but the players asked for it. They are now entering a city of the undead, on a quest to find out the motives of a lich who is invading their homeland. In the end, I envision them confronting the lich, probably slaying him, and maybe restoring the kingdom. We shall see… but this one challenge has existed in my campaign world for the last 20 years, becoming more threatenig over time, as the lich has gone from a historical myth to a possible threat to a real and immediate danger. There is SO much fun in running multiple campaigns in one world!
 

I think a big factor in campaign length is what kind of game you're playing, and specifically how trad or not-trad it is. When it takes 3 hours to get through a single combat, and when you're not hard-framing and similar story-game-style techniques to cut to the action and abstract (or avoid) stuff like shopping runs, a campaign can run two years and still feel like you've only just gotten started. I'm a player in a campaign like that now, and it's a little shocking that we started during the initial lockdowns, and really only barely have a narrative under our belts. Meanwhile a game of Scum and Villainy might fit a ton of narrative into a few months of weekly sessions, because you roll less, cut into the middle of each mission, etc. In fact, in Scum and Villainy the game specifically tells you it's not meant for more than 20 sessions, and the XP progression reflects that. You'll hit a ceiling, by design. That's when the finale should really be happening.

Neither approach is inherently better than the other. Sometimes you might want a focused, intense, fast-paced narrative, and sometimes you want a more laidback, beer-and-pretzels hang. But I think it's worth nothing that the OP assumes a fully trad approach, where the assumption is that the game is built to be a forever game, if you want it to be. That's not the case with a lot of games, particularly newer ones.

ETA: I should note that my instinct as a GM is still to judge every game I read by its worthiness as a long-term campaign, and I've only recently started to appreciate the idea of games that aren't meant to run for years. I get why longer is the default for a lot of us, me included. I just think there's something to be said for the RPG equivalent of a movie or miniseries--big impact over a short time--rather than always looking for full-on multiple-season zero-to-hero affairs. I'm bad at running one-shots myself, but a couple of my fondest gaming memories are from one-shots, particularly where my character died an interesting death.
 
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Reynard

Legend
This thread raises an important question: What is a "campaign"?

Is it a single "story" -- basically one long adventure. That is what the term has come to mean since the early to mid 2000s when Paizo perfected the Adventure Path. WotC published them ina different format, of course, but they are essentially the same thing.

Is the "campaign" a setting instead? If so, many groups have multi-decade campaigns because they return to the same world over and over, whether that world is a published one or not.

Is it continuity of characters? If so, that's got a bit of a ship of Theseus problem as some characters die and are replaced, retire, etc... If none of the original PCs are present any longer, does it become a new campaign?
 

payn

Legend
This thread raises an important question: What is a "campaign"?

Is it a single "story" -- basically one long adventure. That is what the term has come to mean since the early to mid 2000s when Paizo perfected the Adventure Path. WotC published them ina different format, of course, but they are essentially the same thing.

Is the "campaign" a setting instead? If so, many groups have multi-decade campaigns because they return to the same world over and over, whether that world is a published one or not.

Is it continuity of characters? If so, that's got a bit of a ship of Theseus problem as some characters die and are replaced, retire, etc... If none of the original PCs are present any longer, does it become a new campaign?
All of these are campaigns to me, but the third one "continuity of characters" is probably the strongest link. One of the main reasons I struggle with Call of Cthulhu "campaigns" is due to the level of character churn. The weakest I'd say is setting as a campaign. I certainly would not see a story told with one group of characters and then another in the same setting as the same campaign. Even in the case that one story changes the setting for the next batch of characters would be separate campaigns to me.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
I am of the mind that a 'campaign' can happen in a number of different settings. A campaign is a set of adventures that form a story that takes place in a setting, which is the backdrop to the story.
 

This thread raises an important question: What is a "campaign"?

Well, I think the origin of the term comes from wargaming, and the idea of a military campaign. If we consider that source, then I think it’s about a particular military force pursuing a particular objective.

There’s not a perfect translation for that to RPGs since many campaigns aren’t about (or at least don’t start out with) a particular objective. Obviously, with the rise of the Adventure Path model, that’s become more true over time, but the use of campaign predates the Adventure Path.

So taking that into consideration, I think it makes sense to focus on the equivalent to the military force from a military campaign, and for an RPG, that’s the group of player characters.

I don’t personally like the use of campaign to describe a persistent setting because there’s already a word for that, and so campaign should mean something different. It should be about the group of PCs and what they want to achieve. There’s no term for that beyond “campaign”, so it makes sense to me to use it in that way.
 

Reynard

Legend
I don’t personally like the use of campaign to describe a persistent setting because there’s already a word for that, and so campaign should mean something different. It should be about the group of PCs and what they want to achieve. There’s no term for that beyond “campaign”, so it makes sense to me to use it in that way.
So how important is continuity in that?

For example, if PCs called A, B, C and D begin the campaign and C dies in the first dungeon and new character E joins. Later, B's player moves away and the party consists of A, D and E until F joins. A marries an important NPC from fairyland and retires, replaced by G. When D sacrifices themself to save the rest of the party, laving E, F and G, is it still the same campaign?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
So how important is continuity in that?

For example, if PCs called A, B, C and D begin the campaign and C dies in the first dungeon and new character E joins. Later, B's player moves away and the party consists of A, D and E until F joins. A marries an important NPC from fairyland and retires, replaced by G. When D sacrifices themself to save the rest of the party, laving E, F and G, is it still the same campaign?
There are, as your question about what a campaign is implied, different sorts of continuity, any of which can make campaign. It could be the same players (mostly) or the same characters (mostly) or the same setting (broadly) or some other thing that holds play together. I think the specifics will vary instance-to-instance, and trying to nail them down threatens to get in to Ship of Theseus stuff, which--being philosophy--has no answers, just more arguments.
 

Reynard

Legend
There are, as your question about what a campaign is implied, different sorts of continuity, any of which can make campaign. It could be the same players (mostly) or the same characters (mostly) or the same setting (broadly) or some other thing that holds play together. I think the specifics will vary instance-to-instance, and trying to nail them down threatens to get in to Ship of Theseus stuff, which--being philosophy--has no answers, just more arguments.
I think message boards are a perfect venue for philosophical game discussions.


And not much else, really, if I think about it.
 


Gilladian

Adventurer
This thread raises an important question: What is a "campaign"?

Is it a single "story" -- basically one long adventure. That is what the term has come to mean since the early to mid 2000s when Paizo perfected the Adventure Path. WotC published them ina different format, of course, but they are essentially the same thing.

Is the "campaign" a setting instead? If so, many groups have multi-decade campaigns because they return to the same world over and over, whether that world is a published one or not.

Is it continuity of characters? If so, that's got a bit of a ship of Theseus problem as some characters die and are replaced, retire, etc... If none of the original PCs are present any longer, does it become a new campaign?
My definition of a campaign is a series of interconnected adventures involving some or most of the same players and characters, in a mostly contiguous string of events, such that a more-or-less coherent “story” emerges. Also, meta- the PCs do not begin over at starting level. New PCs integrate with the party, and everyone agrees it is the same game. If everyone dies, leaves the game, or throws in the towel and we roll up all-new characters, it is a new campaign. Typically, a new campaign will shift to a different geographic location, have a different raison d’etre, and may shift somewhat in time as well.
 

Reynard

Legend
My longest campaign lasted 20 real world years, included 2 editions of D&D as well as a different game entirely, and spanned 3 generations over 2 eras of history. But I consider it one campaign not 3 because a) it involved the same core players whose characters regardless of era were b) deeply ingrained in the setting meta story.
 

So how important is continuity in that?

For example, if PCs called A, B, C and D begin the campaign and C dies in the first dungeon and new character E joins. Later, B's player moves away and the party consists of A, D and E until F joins. A marries an important NPC from fairyland and retires, replaced by G. When D sacrifices themself to save the rest of the party, laving E, F and G, is it still the same campaign?

There’s still some consistency there, even with the turnover. Any time a new character is introduced, there are remaining characters. There’s always some way to connect it back to the beginning without actually breaking the chain, so to speak.

I suppose we could put forth the idea of a TPK and then a new group being created as a result. Would their adventures be considered the same campaign? It would seem so to me, given that there would be other persistent elements, very likely including a goal of some sort, assuming that the new group kind of picks up where the old one left off.

There seriously are a lot of ways that we could label it. However, I think that it’s most useful for the persistent story of a group of characters, even when some turnover takes place. The reason being that if we instead use it to describe just the fictional world… the setting… then there’s no word to describe Tony and Frank’s group versus Jason and Sue’s group.

Running two different campaigns in the same setting. How is this described if campaign is synonymous with setting?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
All of these are campaigns to me, but the third one "continuity of characters" is probably the strongest link. One of the main reasons I struggle with Call of Cthulhu "campaigns" is due to the level of character churn.
As long as that ship is continuous it doesn't matter to me how many of its parts get replaced along the way. :)

Hell, by the end of the second adventure in my current campaign the entire party had turned over twice. Same players, though, and same (sort-of) story.
The weakest I'd say is setting as a campaign. I certainly would not see a story told with one group of characters and then another in the same setting as the same campaign. Even in the case that one story changes the setting for the next batch of characters would be separate campaigns to me.
To me that's all one campaign, particularly if those disparate characters/parties can interact and-or interweave at some point down the road.

The bigger differentiator for me is in-setting time. As long as everything's happening in roughly the same time frame (e.g. three different parties all adventuring in setting-year 1084 who could and probably will all meet each other in 1085) that's the same campaign. But situations where a new party forms and runs many in-setting years or decades after the first lot isn't the same campaign (even if it involves meeting long-retired PCs from the original campaign); as while the physical setting might not have changed much its inhabitants and storylines will have, to the point where it basically becomes a matter of starting new.
 

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