How to Determine Campaign Length

By Jeremy Brown

I was inspired to write this article by a problem my wife had when she first started trying her hand at GMing. She didn’t feel she had a good enough story. She wanted to run a long, intricate, and interesting campaign.

Many novice GMs, especially ones who have played in experienced groups, feel they should create an epic story that will wow their friends. Add this need to create a superstory to the difficulty of trying to remember the mechanical issues, and it’s enough to make anyone pull their hair out.

This puts a lot of strain on a new GM and some people quit because “they can’t tell a good story” or “can’t run a long story arc.”
Other than novice GMs, there are a few broad groups of GMs in the world: those who prepare endlessly and extensively, those who wing it, and those who use pre-generated adventures. I fall into the first category primarily. While I can wing game sessions, it is not my preferred method.

Therefore, many of the following points work from a preparation-heavy, story-driven GM style. However, they can also be used to improve the games of others.

Long or Short Campaign?

First examine the pros and cons of running long versus short campaigns.
Pros for the long campaign:

  • More time to develop character goals, complicate plots, and develop character and foe personalities.
  • More time to develop the setting.
  • More opportunities to introduce new elements and ideas.
  • More player involvement in their characters and the campaign world
  • More time to fix mistakes.

However, as with all things, there are the downsides:

  • Long campaigns take more player and GM time.
  • They take more work from players and GM.
  • Players can develop campaign fatigue.
  • GM must create a sense of story and timing that is not always as urgent for shorter campaigns.
  • Harder to sustain.

Shorter campaigns have their own benefits:

  • They often have much simpler storylines.
  • They support a lot of experimentation on both sides of the screen.
  • Players do not feel compelled to create superb characters capable of supporting a lot of long-term goals.
  • While every adventure requires a certain awareness of story and timing of events, shorter campaigns are often easier to GM in this regard.

The benefits come with corresponding issues:

  • Players and GMs are often not as invested in short campaigns.
  • The focus in a short campaign is put squarely on the main action. Sometimes side issues of interest to players become lost in the shuffle.
  • Some players feel cheated because they are finally into their character and the campaign ends.
  • A related issue would be characters who start higher than 1st level and cause players to be unhappy they didn’t grow into the character.

What Determines If I Want a Short or Long Campaign?

Consider three things:

  • Story
  • Mechanics
  • The real world

These concerns are not neatly separated, and in some groups, one point or series of points will trump other concerns.

Story Considerations

  • Is the story episodic or continuous? Episodic stories work well as shorter games. Continuous format lends itself better to long campaigns.
  • Does the story have only a few climactic points? If so, it’s probably a short campaign.
  • Is the story actually several short but connected stories? If so, it’s probably a long campaign.
  • Is the story intricate enough, or have enough sub-plots and mini-climaxes, so it would be better served by a long campaign?
  • Is the story within your current GM capabilities? If not, I’d say table it, run some short campaigns, then come back to it. It might just be too long or intricate.
  • Are players willing to invest in a long campaign? The players’ characters and their ideas must grow with the campaign. All the players must be willing. Even just one problem character can ruin a long-running game, or at least, make it more frustrating.
  • Can the setting sustain a long campaign? There must be enough intrigue, history, personalities, and other details to make the players willing to dig into a setting for an extended period.

 

Game Mechanics Considerations

Decide on a final power level for your villains and extrapolate the necessary level your players must reach.

This gives a rough estimate of how many adventures are necessary to reach the final showdown.

To do this, you should know at what speed your players generally level. In D&D 3.5, the DMG recommended a mix of encounters that would bring players to their next level in roughly 8-16 encounters. Some groups, like mine, like levelling much faster. Others like slower.

Figure out your levelling rate to aid in this step.
Determine the level of background players must know before the final showdown.

If players must research and gather information in multiple locations and obtain a certain item to defeat the bad guy, this gives you rough power levels (the level of success needed for the checks) and a number of places. Knowing this ahead of time helps you figure out some of the questions above.

Real World Considerations

Do you and your players have the focus for a long campaign?
Family, jobs, other hobbies (yes, some of us have other hobbies) and other concerns take time away from the game.

If you can only play once a month, it’s perhaps better to run a short game. With so much space between sessions, it’s hard enough remembering what your own character did, let alone what Ardylon the Aged Sage said about Black Setheless. Notes help, but they only go so far.

Are players really excited about the campaign concept?
If they are, that might be a good idea for a long campaign. If only one or two players are excited, a short campaign might be in order. Remember, the GM serves everyone at the table including himself.

Do your players suffer campaign fatigue?
Campaign fatigue is that point, usually in the middle of a campaign arc, where players don’t remember enough of the story or can’t get back into it and they just forge ahead until they’re finally back to something they like or are more familiar with.

If this happens several campaigns running, consider running shorter campaigns or breaking up long campaigns into shorter episodes.
What are the expectations of the group?

A group that plays well together and has a good GM will be willing to invest more time and trust into a long storyline. However, conversely, they’re more willing to experiment with a short campaign. For uncertain or novice GMs, trust your players. They know you’re not the next Gary Gygax—yet.
How much material can you steal?

If you have a number of pre-generated adventures that fit into a campaign arc, then part of your work is done.

If you have ideas, items, spells, monsters, and other material scooped from other products, part of your work is done.

If you have a lot of pre-generated material, long campaigns become more feasible. However, beware of lengthening a campaign to work in one more cool adventure. Pre-generated elements, like any others, should fit with and advance the campaign goals.

Final Thoughts

These tips boil down to one major tip that is of use in many different situations: know yourself and your gaming group.

The best groups learn to trust each other and communicate honestly. If your players like short dungeon crawls followed by looting and pillaging, then all the will in the world will not make a long and drawn out mystery of interest to them.

However, if they trust you to work in short dungeon crawls into that long and drawn out mystery, they will often be willing to attempt it and will sometimes change their style of game.

By the same token, listen to your players and try to throw them a bone as well. If your last three campaigns have made mages the focus of the action, then make a short campaign where the fighter types shine most.

The main thing, whether you run a short or a long campaign, is to realize that the length is mostly determined by your group’s preferences and the demands of the story.

 

Comments

  1. Tynam says

    Additional note: It’s easy to _add_ length to a campaign, or continue into a sequel. It’s hard to _subtract_ length from a plan. Planning short still enables long, but not the other way around.

    (One Cybergeneration game I ran years ago was planned as 5 adventures. After the sixth adventure and a year of play, we were finally into the _second_ scenario of my plan. The players added so much character, with interaction and goals, that it was just _not clever_ to ignore that and railroad back to my plan.)

    The first thing I’d say to a novice GM with nerves about long-cool-campaign writing is: start with a couple of sessions worth. Get some basic worldbuilding done. It’s *much* easier to prep campaign material once you’ve seen who the characters are in practice and how they interact. If your players are roleplaying at all, ideas will start to happen at that point.