The Horror! of a Game That Never Ends

We've all been there: as kids, we started a Dungeons & Dragons campaign but never imagined, decades later, that we'd still be playing in a world we made up. Does it ever end? Should it?
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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Dungeons & Dragon's campaign life cycle has always varied with its players. Co-creator Gary Gygax played with his friends and his children, with no theoretical upper limit on level advancement. Dungeon Masters who grew up in the 80s may still be running campaigns in their homegrown worlds decades later, even if it's not the same characters.

This can be quite intimidating to new players. Most tabletop gamers who are accustomed to board games can imagine playing a session for an hour or two at most; playing for four or more hours at a time is a serious commitment.

A campaign is even more daunting. Playing on and off for months or years can seem like another job (and for many DMs, it is). With no actual end, the game can go on forever. For an example for just how long, see Robert Wardhaugh's campaign that's been running continuously for 35 years.

When the Game Ends

There are obvious in-game reasons for why campaigns end. Total party kills can dampen enthusiasm. I had two campaigns that ended this way in high school.

Also, some campaigns end because players achieve their goals. It took some time before my Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign culminated in a finale that featured the defeat of the final boss. When it did end, we promptly started up another campaign set in the same world. That second campaign never wrapped, because I moved for college.

Players or the DM moving are just one example of how real-life reasons campaigns can fizzle out. One of the appeals of D&D is its episodic nature, ideal for gamers who have free time on their hands and no competing entertainment. This makes the average campaign ideally suited for four years, be it in high school or university. In my case, we played for eight years across both.

But then I moved, and the campaign fell apart, which brings us to another reason campaigns end without really wrapping up. Players move away, get married, get jobs, and--more grimly as we all get older--pass away. Keeping a campaign going after playing for decades with the same players can become increasingly challenging as real life responsibilities press in.

After my initial, successful D&D campaign, I ran another D&D game set in a different campaign setting that successfully wrapped up after three years, a D20 Modern/Call of Cthulhu setting that wrapped up after three years (but that my players later admitted they disliked), and an online Pathfinder campaign that ended after three years without wrapping up. The last two campaigns soured me on running a game without a conclusion. With my latest campaign I set out to address those mistakes.

You Can Check Out At Any Time, But Can You Leave?

A few things became apparent with marathon sessions in which we played together once a month for eight hours at a time: nobody remembered what happened between games, if a player missed the game they missed a whole lot, and the buzz from a great session wasn't enough to sustain my creative juices until the next session. Something had to change.
  • I've since shifted my online game to playing once a week. Playing weekly is critical, using Facebook and other social media to keep everyone connected. It's brief enough that players can still remember what happened from game to game. Despite this, we rarely actually play two consecutive weeks in a row due to competing adult responsibilities that demand all of our time.
  • We also play for shorter periods of time. As much as we'd like to run a game for longer, our games tend to run for about three hours each night.
  • We play with up to six players, with the understanding that we will still play if there's at least four players available. This keeps the game moving forward no matter what (we do make exceptions for the finale, where everyone has a chance to experience the last game).
  • But perhaps most important is that I've written my adventures so that there are natural breaks where current players can leave and new players can join. This creates a more natural and pleasant departure for a player and their character to leave vs the alternative of not showing up anymore, or an awkward explanation as to why a player's character disappeared. It provides an in-game pause that accommodates real life.
We're running a game with a new player who is currently just observing to decide if she wants to join. Watching experienced role-players laughing and joking together may seem intimidating; but by parsing out sessions and giving players a means of leaving with no hard feelings, I'm hopeful it makes joining an ongoing campaign a little less terrifying.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
When starting a new campaign, if someone asks me how long I intend to run it my usual answer is "Ideally, the rest of my life; no fixed end point. In practice, let's see how it goes."

So far I've had three.

The first went 10 years before a) I (and others) realized our system had trouble with high-level play and b) I-as-DM finally got fed up with my own setting, I'd written myself into too many annoying corners. I was able to bring it to a story-based conclusion and close the book on it.

The second went well over 12 years, and ended because I'd pretty much run out of ideas for it...except I didn't bring it to a conclusion, and in theory we could start it up again sometime. And the rules system was starting to wobble again as well.

The third is now well over 11 years and still has legs, though covid has put a bit of a hole in it as I have absolutely no interest in running anything online. But, at the moment down to one player and me, it's still going... :)

There's a small core of us who have been involved through most of these, and numerous other players have come and gone over the years.

It can be done, provided the DM is in the situation of being able to live long-term in the same town or close and has long-term friends who want to play. :)
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Co-creator Gary Gygax played with his friends and his children, with no theoretical upper limit on level advancement.

Well, not unlimited levels for monks or druids and all non-human folk (depending on class of course), if they were playing AD&D.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Removing my pedant hat; I will say that an unlimited horizon game feels daunting. I am playing in an RPG group in which a one of the other players we have been playing RPGs since 1991 or so. But not the same campaign, or even same game. And also an 8 year break between 2000-2008. The idea of the same PCs in the same world seems sort of boring tbh. I'd rather switch it up. Now I might be interested in the children or otherwise related folks to the existing PCs. But even that feels sort of boring after a while. Just like I am finding that books and tv shows I liked in my teens and 20's now feel dated; I could see a game in the same setting feeling the same way.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Removing my pedant hat; I will say that an unlimited horizon game feels daunting. I am playing in an RPG group in which a one of the other players we have been playing RPGs since 1991 or so. But not the same campaign, or even same game. And also an 8 year break between 2000-2008. The idea of the same PCs in the same world seems sort of boring tbh. I'd rather switch it up.
Switching up PCs is as simple as retiring one (or having it die and stay dead) and bringing in another. :)

As for the same setting becoming dull after a while, you have a point. The trick IMO is to always keep large bits of the setting mysterious, so there's always something new to discover. Example: in my current game it took them about ten years (real time) to find any reason to go down to the southern sea beyond the jungles (an area about which most northerners know little to nothing); but once there they found almost a whole new setting - new empires, new cultures, new local deities, new customs, etc. - which they've barely scratched the surface of exploring.

In real world equivalence, they've now explored (or have decent knowledge of) much of North America. Now they've discovered South America. Europa, Asia, and a bunch of other places yet await...never mind a whole other planet running binary with this one. :)

So yes, I can still get tons of mileage out of this setting even though I've been running it for 11+ years. I could easily start new campaigns, completely unrelated to the current one, and recycle the same setting (though I'd make it clear up-front to any continuing players that I was doing so, as some things e.g. astronomy would still be familiar and that might detract from their experience of exploring as if it was all new)
 

Ace

Adventurer
Its absolutely fine to keep playing a setting until it stops being fun . At that point its time to make changes.

In fact D&D or TTRPG's themselves are that rare gift, a hobby that brings people together be enjoyed from childhood to old age , played everywhere and anywhere for as long as they bring joy and on any budget, large or small.

Were there more more people who spent time tossing the polyhedrals instead of playing with people's lives this world would be a much nicer place.
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
I have the same "campaign world" I've been using since the mid-80's. I've run about a dozen campaigns in it ranging in length from 6 months up to 5 years- most are in the 2-4 year range due to my life (middle school - 3 years, high school - 4 years, undergrad - 2 years, grad school - 6 years, moving to a new place - 4 years, etc.). Our last game, the first 5E one I've run/co-DMed, was almost 2 years as well--we stopped because we hit level 20 and really didn't want to run an "epic" style game. The game also breaks when we play other RPGs, but then picks up again.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
DMing since 1980.

Never had a "single-mega-super-detailed-campaign-world-that-goes-on-forever". I guess I could put them all on the same planet if I wanted to. I don't have a big binder with all the campaign notes.

I prefer to start fresh every time. Usually with a new edition or if I start DMing for a new group of players.

In all those years I only had one campaign that actually finished properly with a real ending. Characters retiring from adventuring into more lordly roles. It was my longest running campaign. 5 years (1990-1995).

Most campaigns end because the group of players disbands, TPKs (very rare) or I loose interest and want to start something new.

My current 5e campaign just passed the one year mark but stopped because of Covid-19. I like to use terrain and miniatures. We have a major battle between three armies coming up. We will play again when we can meet face-to-face.
 

Oofta

Legend
I have an ongoing campaign world as well with most of it's geography and history intact since around 1980. A few hundred years have passed in game since that day and other than a couple of elves (last of the original dwarves passed on a couple of years ago) and one wizard (one of my first PCs, an atheist, who may have achieved his goal immortality) it's all new inhabitants.

Various campaigns set in the world have come and gone in different regions with impacts on the larger world great and small. A barely averted apocalypse happened because one campaign didn't achieve it's "stretch" goal. The world didn't end, but there was still led vast destruction everywhere including basically one of my major cities and major campaign hub. There are statues here and there of PC adventurers long gone, others are mere legends, some have been forgotten. PCs from my wife's last campaign (she shares my world now, we do crossovers now and then) have become NPCs and continue to be active in the background now and then.

Every campaign impact on the world great and small which helps shape it's history and trajectory. Kingdoms have fallen, but new and peaceful kingdoms have also arisen, some led by retired PCs. People know that some day their names may also go down in history,
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Switching up PCs is as simple as retiring one (or having it die and stay dead) and bringing in another. :)

As for the same setting becoming dull after a while, you have a point. The trick IMO is to always keep large bits of the setting mysterious, so there's always something new to discover. Example: in my current game it took them about ten years (real time) to find any reason to go down to the southern sea beyond the jungles (an area about which most northerners know little to nothing); but once there they found almost a whole new setting - new empires, new cultures, new local deities, new customs, etc. - which they've barely scratched the surface of exploring.

In real world equivalence, they've now explored (or have decent knowledge of) much of North America. Now they've discovered South America. Europa, Asia, and a bunch of other places yet await...never mind a whole other planet running binary with this one. :)

So yes, I can still get tons of mileage out of this setting even though I've been running it for 11+ years. I could easily start new campaigns, completely unrelated to the current one, and recycle the same setting (though I'd make it clear up-front to any continuing players that I was doing so, as some things e.g. astronomy would still be familiar and that might detract from their experience of exploring as if it was all new)
Well you sure make it sound much more interesting than I was thinking. Do you refer back to former characters? In my current Mad Mage campaign, there are veeeery occasionally references to our old characters or old adventures in either Chult or the Underdark. I'm not sure how I feel about that...
 

Shiroiken

Legend
When I was younger, my campaigns were open-ended. They were primarily stand-alone adventures (often published modules), with only a handful of things being connected. My first campaign was a Monty-Hual type game that I inherited when the DM moved, and characters were about 18th level (1E AD&D). At around level 30, it was just too hard to continue challenging the characters without using the gods from Legends and Lore, which was a notion that offended my sensibilities (still does). I told the players they had the choice of an epic campaign ending adventure, where they'd either ascend to immortality or be erased from existence, or they'd face an army of level draining undead, where they'd certainly lose most of their levels with a high probability of permanent death. They wisely chose the epic quest, after which we started over.

As I got older, I understood the advantages of having an overarching story. Watching the X-Files gave me a good idea on how to balance stand-alone adventures with plot-driving adventures. Once I did this, I found that the length of a good campaign isn't dictated by the game's level limits, but by the needs of the story. This can be high level (my first 5E campaign took about 2 years and went from level 1-18), or can be fairly low (friend's first 4E campaign went from level 1-5). Dragging a campaign on after the story is told generally ruins the memorable aspects of the story, causing it to "jump the shark." I like to keep the same setting each time though, if I can, and include the events of the previous campaign to promote continuity.
 

Von Ether

Legend
I haven't stayed in one area long enough for a long running game. And I even had a GM who got us up 20 levels in AD&D in just a year.

It seems the longest lasting "campaigns" are just a GM using the same setting and then weaving previous campaigns into the setting's canon, not unlike a comic book universe. But then again, good recycling of your story elements has always an art in ttRPGs.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I prefer my campaigns to last no more than 2 years. Increasingly, I'm enjoying mini-campaigns over full 1-20 campaigns. There are too many stories, settings, and systems I want to try.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well you sure make it sound much more interesting than I was thinking. Do you refer back to former characters?
Within a campaign any 'former' (i.e. retired) characters are usually somewhere they can be found if anyone needs to, for example, talk to one.

There's not much cross-pollination between my campaigns. So far in my current one I've had one PC from each of the previous two campaigns make an appearance; one completely unintentionally on its part and they met it off-world in any case, and the other to maybe set up some possible future plot ideas...or not, depending how things go.
 

Pauln6

Adventurer
Our campaign is 30 years old (although we absorbed an even older campaign that is about 36 years old). I'm working towards Age of Worms (3 parts to go) mixed in with GDQ and Vecna Lives as the finale. PCs are currently levels 11-16.
 

RavingLoon

Villager
The best part of having decades in real life and in-game generations all in one giant campaign (or world) is, of course, dealing with what original PCs leave behind. Running through the trap filled tomb of a paranoid dwarf who once saved the world? Check! Stealing from the massive library of that wizard who spent his entire campaign accumulating spell books? Check! New player characters who are part of a religion (or cult) that worships a previous level-20 pc who completely ruined altered your planned future campaigns? Also check! Or just visiting the cities they founded, the battlefields where they held their great... battles (that seems repetitive), and the wrecked kingdoms the destroyed. Old PCs basically give you immensely detailed background characters, without having to spend all night on a name generator.

Onto my second topic- when a group (or just the DM) runs the same game for a very long time, do you think that it should just be the same world or also the same (or an extension of the same) campaign? Will your future players be going on brand new adventures, or will they be venturing into new lands to eradicate the menace your original players drove from their home kingdoms? Will you be creating completely new challenges and adversaries, or will the Great Necromancer the original PCs thought they killed prove immortal and undying, creating fresh horrors for the new PCs to face?
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
My year long 3.5 sandbox is drawing to a close soon. I don't think I have ever put more work into a game before. I set an artificial end. Level 12 and when they wrap up the current quest they are on. I could keep going on forever I am sure but I have so many other games I want to run. I wouldn't want to run the same thing for multiple years.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
I've used the same setting since 1974. It's expanded and evolved of course. A "new" campaign was typically the result of a move or an edition change. I had largely the same players for the first 7 years (high school and college). Changing from the original game to 1E didn't really have any effects. Then came grad school, new players. Still 1E. A move with new players tended to let me advance the campaign history. A lot of the "legendary adventurers and heroes" of the setting were former PCs and associated NPCs. A number of moves, edition changes etc. followed with more campaign history rolling along. The switch from 2E to 3E happened with a long term bunch of players (about 5 years). They kept their PCs with adjustments. That took work, a lot of tinkering with the world then. And so on. I think a setting can have legs, the real question is players, and it's usually a move by someone (or 2) that shakes things up. New players haven't been that big an issue (to date). Time is really scarce as Talien noted. And Covid is a problem right now. Retirement, and probably one last move, is looming in another year or two. I'm looking forward to settling down for a long stretch of play with the same PCs. I don't think I will willingly give up playing (depending on health and ability). They can pry my dice from my cold dead hands :D

edit And they may have a fight on their hands then!
 

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