Fish or Cut Bait?

What is it that makes an RPG campaign last? When is it time to decide the current campaign isn’t working and it’s time to try something new?

I’ve noticed that the groups I game with tend to go through different stages. Sometimes we’ll have a lot of consistency with games lasting dozens of sessions. Our current Pendragon game has been like that, with nearly 60 years of gameplay racked up corresponding to 60+ sessions. We’re at the point where people are playing their original characters’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

On the other hand, some games that seemed perfect for a long-term game didn’t work out as intended. The most notable for me was RuneQuest not working out for our group. We got everything ready to play a RuneQuest campaign a few years back. We had some really great characters. We had the then-fairly new RuneQuest RPG ready to go. But when we played… it just didn’t flow. There was just too much for everyone to keep track of—I think all of us just tended to forget everyone had access to some form of magic, and with traits and passions, there was just too much for everyone to grasp onto. Was I to do it again (and I would rather like to as I would love to make the game work out), I’d do a much more gradual introduction of the system, deliberately ignoring certain things until certain concepts were fully grasped (which, I’m happy to hear, matches the approach of the Starter Set).

On other occasions, we grasped the rules just fine; they didn’t quite work for us. Several years ago, my group tried a D&D 4th edition game. Most of us liked the idea of the game just fine, and the rules seemed initially to work well for us, but we found ourselves getting into the combat “grind” in almost every combat—the first rounds were a ton of fun, but then the second half of the battle the outcome was obvious, but it took forever to get to that point. We tried “fading to black” but found that unsatisfying in a game like D&D.

Right now, we have a fairly nascent One Ring campaign going on, having finished our first two adventures (each adventure taking 2-3 sessions). The verdict is still pending on getting into a good rhythm. As GM, I was initially concerned we weren’t moving in the right direction, but a Discord discussion revealed everyone wanted to keep at it—both out of a love of the setting and beginning to reach the point of starting to internalize the rules. With that discussion, we decided to keep at it a little longer.

I’m not sure we’ve found another long-term campaign (and our Pendragon campaign sets a rather high bar for “long-term”), but I did notice some definite improvement in our most recent session.

One thing we did differently from the start was dialing down the complexity, focusing on the very basics of the rules, and, for the most part ignoring the more complicated options. That was probably the right call, though it is worth noting as we began layering the complexity, the game began feeling more true to its source material. For example, in our most recent scenario, we had a Hobbit burglar who took advantage of various traits to sneak out of a trap that brigands had set for the Fellowship. By spending Hope aligned with her stealth traits, she was able to turn the tables, a very Bilbo Baggins sort of thing to do.

Our experience with Pendragon was similar—early in the campaign, I was beginning to have my doubts about how long I could keep it going. I made a deal with myself to at least get through the campaign’s first phase – the reign of King Uther Pendragon. There was definitely some advantage to that. As the game began picking up momentum, it got easier to run, and the campaign itself began finding its own flow. If I did it again, I’m sure I’d do some things differently, but that’s the advantage of learning. As with The One Ring, a strategy of building things up worked well. At the start of the game, the characters were little more than warriors in a savage age. Not much in the way of chivalry. Little interaction with the faerie. That early phase did have the feeling of repetition, and I think it went on just a little longer than I’d have liked.

It’s worth remembering groups do not have to function in isolation. Back in the dark ages of gaming, when I first started in the 1980s, the resources to help gain mastery of a new game at your table were much more limited. Ideally, you’d have players in your group with familiarity. There were gaming magazines for more popular games, and though I was never part of the convention scene then, that was not an option (“Mom, can I go to Wisconsin this August?”). With Usenet and online gaming forums gaining prevalence in the 1990s, more options became available. I know some people enjoy watching gaming on YouTube and Twitch, though I have to confess those options haven’t been the most appealing. I have discovered that pickup games are a lot easier to arrange in the internet age—sometimes with one or more of a game’s creators.

I’d love to hear in the comments what strategies our readers have used to help steer new campaigns for success—and when you know it’s time to try something else. Or do you embrace the idea of standalone games and short “miniseries” for campaigns?

~ Daniel Stack

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