The Secrets to Successful Long-Term Campaigns — RPT#553
In RPT #551, Chris asked for help running long-term campaigns. I know from personal experience these are rare and wondrous things.
To me, a long-term campaign is at least three years running, in real time. I know some of you have magnificent 10, 15 and 20+ year campaigns. Hats off to you, great game masters. I hope to have a campaign running that long some day.
Meantime, many of you wrote in with great tips and suggestions for Chris on how he can embark on a lengthy campaign with his friends. This week, I’m featuring some of those great tips.
I’ll push out more long-term campaign tips from your fellow RPT readers in upcoming issues.
Begin With the End in Mind
The only thing I had at hand when I started my six-year campaign was a grand finale (which is about to happen within the next few month) and a first level D&D adventure.
What I did was GM as usual: Session by session, quest by quest, adventure by adventure – with one exception: I always placed something in each part that had a connection to my grand finale idea.
In the first year, the players did not even know what the world´s big secret was about. But they felt that there was a secret. There was an ever-escaping villain, for example. And mysterious runes appeared again and again, plus observers from foreign dimensions.
All these elements were carefully wrapped in usual adventures.
Borrow Player Ideas
Most of the quests themselves had nothing to do with the main idea of the campaign. Their only use was spending a good evening roleplaying, leveling the characters and spreading some impressions of the great secret again.
The players discussed it a lot, and some of their ideas were better than my own. They spent whole nights talking about possible reasons for the things they found. So, I made some of their speculations become true. Until today they do not know that they wrote huge parts of the plot. 🙂
Keep Good Notes
It is very important to make good records! Long campaigns can cause big confusion if you do not keep the total overview. Summarize the important facts and motivate your players to try do so from the first day on.
Get your campaign idea, think of possible hints and place them in adventures. As soon as the players get the main idea, you can react and build their dreams – or nightmares – and create the real campaign-adventures! You will know what to do, then or earlier.
Cobble Together Several Short Adventures
From: Phil Nicholls
At the risk of standing on the shoulders of (gaming) giants, I would urge you to seek out the superb article Thinking Big by Eric Wujcik, originally published in The Rifter magazine. Copies are available online, through the wonder of Google.
Tell Long Stories
While you really should read the whole article, and it is rather long, the essence is the way Eric created his Circle of Twelve Artefacts. For me, the trick to running a long campaign is to tell a long story. And the easiest way to tell a long story is to cobble together a series of shorter stories and give them all an overarching plot.
For example, if you could make the quest for one artefact last even four months, with sundry side-quests and such, then you can make 12 such quests last four years.
Not that you need to create all 12 quests to begin with. Simply start with one quest, or even a published scenario with some sort of MacGuffin. Then drop a few hints this was once part of some ancient multi-part artefact, scatter about some rumours, and start the players on the quest.
Leave Details Vague and Firm Up As You Go
As Eric writes, you need not even decide on what the other 11 artefacts are at the start. You can wait to see what the players are excited about, and take it from there.
Even when you have to start naming the artefacts, you can simply give them vague names to hedge your bets. An artefact called Might of the Red Scale could be almost anything. A shield, a blade, a red gem or an item set with a ruby, an enchanted scale, a pair of scales for weighing a mortal’s soul or simply a name for a sword or other weapon.
Indeed, it could be rumoured to be all of these things and you wait until the player’s excitedly bite on one of these hooks before deciding.
There is so much scope with this model of campaign design. Read the article and see what you think.
Tune PCs to the Campaign
Some players can see it as limiting their options, but be specific about what type of characters you want. Whether that is saying stick with fighter and thief types, or saying the PCs need to be team players and are motivated to work for the Vatican.
Characters designed for a campaign, even if they are slightly out of someone’s normal comfort zone, always play better. Sandbox characters are much harder to bring together as a team.
Offer Characters Campaign Hooks
Before you pitch the campaign to your players or when adding new characters, do an outline for several subplots as well your metaplot. Write little descriptive blurbs on each.
Then tell your players you have campaign hooks to get them involved and see which get the players interested. Emphasize the plots they picked at first, effectively rewarding those willing to help create your world.
Have the plots that don’t get picked going on as background color. You’d be surprised how many times something no one was interested in at first gets followed up on when they see it happening in-game.
Using all your plot hooks also adds variety, and players won’t feel like they are riding rails with no real choices to make.
Immerse your players heavily into the culture, genre tropes and style of the campaign for at least the first few sessions, and again every few sessions if not all the time.
Don’t worry about a deep layering yet. But if a character say looks out the window, don’t say, “You see a warrior and priest walking down the street.” Say, “A priest of Phor the God of Fire and what is obviously a veteran mercenary with an orcish bastard sword seem to be dickering over something as they pass the trade shops on the far side of Market street which your 2nd story window over looks.”
The more you do this, a) the easier it is to unobtrusively put clues or important NPCs within reach of the characters, and b) many creative players will pick up and start using similar descriptions for themselves, their stuff and actions.
Definitely think over your campaign’s metaplot. Have an idea of what would happen if the players don’t interfere in events. Metaplots exist in the campaign past, before the characters. They progress even when the characters don’t know about it.
They are also future-flexible and react to events caused by the characters based on the information they know.
A villain who thought he only had to deal with the normal police at first won’t take any precautions against superheroes per se, but will alter his plans and possibly his objectives as the heroes make a name for themselves or unknowingly foil his schemes.
Metaplots sometimes take years to conclude. It is tempting to try and make it eternal. The problem with eternal metaplots is the players eventually come to believe no matter what they do they can’t make a difference.
Metaplots are important, but episodic and tangential plotlines are also good for variety. Subplots help let time pass before the next metaplot event triggers.
If you do absolutely prefer episodic games, it’s best if you have what my friend calls a MacGuffin to direct the players to the next episode.
These NPCs or organizations shape where and what the characters do without controlling the details of their actions.
In one campaign I had an NPC called Enigma. He was a wizened old man of seemingly near godlike abilities who greeted the characters immediately after their first death (which usually was part of the characters’ intro). He made a few cryptic remarks and introduced players to the team that went on missions for him.
In another campaign, a figure took interest in the PCs who had stepped up to resolve a nefarious plot. Later he was revealed to be the master spy of the empire. When he needs to keep the empire’s hands clean or has suspicions but not enough proof to act, he merely prods the group in the right direction and is prepared to follow or clean up the results.
Ask Players to GM
Encourage players interested in trying GMing to step up and run a plot in your campaign world.
The longest campaigns in my experience have been the ones that two, three or sometimes more GMs were willing to share. This was true of a supers game that ran 5+ years and had four GMs, and a still active fantasy game that has two active GMs, and one that ran for over 12 years.
Having multiple game masters also reduces GM burnout, helps handle real life intrusions, and lets you use the same player group to play in several genres if your group likes diversity.
How To Win A Pound Of Dice
RPT reader Paddy asks for help with roadside encounters:
“Hi, just wondering what tips you might have that list hazards while travelling on the open road?
“Things like flooded bridges, brigands ambushing merchants and travellers, brushfires, landslides taking out mountain passes.”
It just so happens Awesome Dice offered me a pound of dice to run a short contest, and Paddy’s request seems like the perfect opportunity.
To enter and help Paddy at the same time, send me short roadside encounter seeds. Like so: “The bridge ahead is flooded out.”
I will draw a winner at random July 4.
Multiple entries are encouraged!
Thanks to Awesome Dice for offering a pound of dice for the prize.
Game Master Tips & Tricks
From: Andrew Lindley
Add A Cliffhanger To Your Descriptions
As you say, “silence is death.” I’m a GM of over 30 years experience and it has long been my judgement that for beginner gamers the few minutes laying out combat is a mood killer.
Inevitably, they are distracted from the dramatic tension of combat by things they do not understand or from curiosity.
My solution is to give a small cliff hanger in the description beforehand to add a little tension in the last few moments before the combat.
Then I tell the players to take a nature break or make coffee while I lay the minis and map out.
Tension then anticipation is suspense. Newbie gamers will already have the habit of feeling and maintaining suspense while doing mundane activities from everyday life – use it.
You can build this rise in tension using techniques from any type of small or large cliffhanger you find on radio, TV or film.
For example, the last time I did this it was night and the party could see a lit evil ceremony from a long way off. They had surprise.
When they got to table range I cut to a description of the evil priest leading the black rites being caught by a shaft of moonlight and shouting madly, “…and you will be amongst the glorified when the weak are overthrown and Margesh is conquered!”
Another time, the monsters had surprise. So, I described a couple of the minion types then the bigger pack leader appearing last brandishing a fearsome axe as they charged.
Players might decide to feed the cat or something if they’re away from the table. Borrow from TV ad breaks again, and simply recap the last “shot” of the tension setter when they finally get back.
Finding Gaming Items On The Cheap
From: Darren Blair
For gamers looking for game-related material on the cheap and are willing to make do with older product, a good way to find material is to visit local garage / boot sales and thrift stores.
What often happens is people will decide they aren’t into gaming anymore, decide their relatives are “too old” for gaming, or find themselves in possession of unwanted gaming-related materials like manuals, novels and even miniatures.
These people frequently do not know the true market value, and so will often either donate them or let them go cheaply.
Among my scores:
- The 2006 revised edition of the Jadeclaw manual for $1 at a charity garage sale.
- $200 worth of Battletech miniatures at a garage sale for $20 due to the seller deciding that a relative was “too old” for gaming.
- A vintage copy of Top Secret for $5 at the local Goodwill. The dice were missing, but in their place I got a full ream’s worth of game notes, maps, technical schematics and character sheets from the previous owner.
CardsOne is a company that deals in vintage cards, comic books and other such merchandise.
Twice a year (Easter and Christmas), CardsOne ships an exclusive product to Dollar Tree stores: bags containing two random comics and a random trading card. As this is Dollar Tree, each bag is $1, no matter how rare or valuable the comic books.
This year’s Easter assortment contained a handful of Dungeons & Dragons comics produced by Devil’s Due Publishing ca. 2006. “What comics ship to what store” is highly erratic, so I had to hit all three Dollar Trees in my immediate area to even find them.
If you don’t have a local Dollar Tree, or your local Dollar Tree has been cleaned out of comics, you can periodically order individual issues from their website or their catalog.
Use Tarot During Games For Inspiration
From: Erik Freeman
One of my favorite tricks for winging it is having a Tarot deck at hand. Whenever I need to describe a scene or a new NPC, I flip a card.
A little creativity is needed of course, yet who wants to play under an uncreative DM?
The Fool is a local jester or a former adventuring bard.
Strength is a foreign Barbarian (Conan anyone?) or a retired general.
The tower is a dark robed necromancer or a villainous noble.
Two of wands is a young mage on a mission from his master or a merchant selling staffs.
Eight of Pentagrams is a gold smith or a known talented runesmith.