The Long-Running Campaign

Among the hustle and bustle of a Sunday crowd of a certain PAX East, I found myself running to and fro through the tabletop area. It was the only day I was able to attend, and I had actually been somewhat forced to go by loved ones because life had sprung some nasty surprises recently (a long story for another time, perhaps), so I was determined to see and do as much as I could. As I actually rushed out of the tabletop area for a panel I came across an old friend from high school I hadn’t seen in a while; we exchanged greetings and well-wishes, then went our separate ways. After that weekend he got in touch, expressing a regret that he’d never gotten to play D&D and that he was wondering if I could help him out with that. Sure enough, I was able to put together a group, and we started playing. That was in 2013. The party reached Level 24 this past Wednesday.

Most of the games I play in or run these days are what I’d call ‘limited run’ games. The fact that there will be an ending is almost a guarantee, but part and parcel with that is that the number of sessions is relatively small. Twelve to twenty seems to be the average these days, with it usually taking no more than a year to complete. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about that! The Limited Run campaign has a lot of perks, not the least of which is a certain level of immunity to game ADD. But why not more long-running ‘epic’ games, where you get to keep the same characters around long enough to really get to know them, both mechanically and in terms of personality?

Well, the reality is that it’s not easy to keep a long-running game alive. The game I mentioned above, the one that just reached it’s 4th year, is a 4th (heh) Edition D&D Eberron campaign. But it’s also a game that shared a world with another for a while. When that friend got in touch with me after PAX East ’13 my then-ongoing 4e Eberron game had too many players, on maybe it’s second year. I was able to round up enough new blood to get a new game going, and on a whim decided to try an experiment: they’d be in the same world. For a time, it worked: the new ‘Beta’ party often had to deal with the mischief that their guildmates had caused across the border, and the ‘Alpha’ party was starting to hear rumors about the new recruits. But the Alpha game eventually fell apart (although thankfully the group didn’t), while the ‘Beta’ one has long since surpassed it’s predecessor in level, time, and scope.

The failure of the Alpha party to go the distance and reach an actual ending certainly isn’t the only such case I’ve experienced and seen. A long-runner finishing satisfactorily and not landing in the Graveyard of Abandoned Campaigns is actually a relatively novel experience for me: I’ve only been a player in two, and the current Eberron game is my hope for managing to DM one. So far it’s been four years, the longest I’ve ever kept a game going, and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way that might come in handy for keeping your own long runner in the air.

Persistent but Flexible Schedule

This is probably the most important one, even if it’s not the most interesting or the flashiest. Find a day of the week that works for everyone. Whether it’s supposed to be a weekly game, biweekly, or once a month, that’s your game night. Carve it out of the rest of your schedule, with the assumption that when game night comes around you’ll be available.

Something comes up on game night? Holiday? Early work the next day? Just need time at home with the significant other/spouse/kids/book you’re reading before you pass out or go crazy? That’s fine! If your game night isn’t every week, see if you can reset the schedule so the next ‘off’ week is now ‘on’ to make up for it. If you can’t, try and make sure you can get to the next game night. If you can’t . . . everyone realize that you’re in this for the long haul. Keep in touch with people, let them know you’ve still got the game on your mind. If there’s been a longer-than-usual break in the game, review your notes right before the next session so you can hop right in and keep things going.

If the night you pick doesn’t work out any more, put your collective heads together and find a new one. The Eberron game has jumped from Wednesday to Tuesday and back to Wednesday over the course of the last four years. And while it’s not a universally useful piece of advice, consider running if you only have an absence or two. If you do that, consider letting players puppet an absent player’s character in combat situations, and definitely make telling the absent player what happened a fun story.

Keep the Players On Their Toes

Part of the fun of being a tabletop RPG player is overcoming the challenges put in front of you. Defeating opponents, solving puzzles, escaping traps, navigating social encounters, and so on. A general bit of good advice is to keep those challenges varied, but it becomes extra important when your game is going to last for years.

Don’t use the same type of enemies. Don’t use the same kind of tactics. Don’t use the same kind of terrain, or the same kind of environment. Recurring bad guys help with establishing a sense of continuity, but don’t stop introducing new ones now and again or else the old favorites will grow stale. Indulge in a sidequest now and again for a change of pace.

The Eberron party are on their third continent at the moment, with a fourth somewhere on the horizon. They’ve fought on land, at sea, and in the air. They’ve delved into the depths of Khyber and the Cogs of Sharn. They’ve dealt with Brelish politicians and as few Zilargo spies as possible. They have crossed the jungles, mountains, and deserts of Xen’Drik. They’ve gotten hit with the timey-wimey ball, made peace with estranged family members, and overthrown local governments. If they didn’t have that sort of variety, I doubt they’d have stuck around as long as they have.

For the players, keep the GM on their toes too! Try new tactics, develop your characters in interesting directions, take a risk now and again! Because as surely as the game will end if the players get bored, so too will it end if the GM gets bored.

Be Willing to Harvest Fresh Blood

Sometimes you’re going to lose a player to the needs of the rest of their life and schedule. I’ve talked about dealing with this sort of thing before in an Adventure Log, but that was about how to handle the absence of the player/character. What I’m talking about here is how to keep your group population up enough to keep things vibrant.

The Eberron game started with four players, but we lost our fourth player after only a session or two. Alright, easy enough to deal with; the party was in Zilargo, so they blamed the gnomes and got out as fast as they could. We picked up a new player right around the start of the 3rd arc, relatively early in 4e’s paragon tier. He too, however, had to drop out after only a few sessions. Also easy enough to deal with: the party had fallen in with a House Cannith expedition across Xen’drik, so he faded into the background as another caravan guard. We finally picked up what looks to be our final new addition halfway through paragon, level 16 or so, and he’s stuck around since.

Now, maybe you originally packed the party, figuring that a few losses would still leave you at optimal attendance (be wary of doing this, though, because maybe nobody drops out and you end up with a mob instead of a party). Or maybe you still have enough players, just not as many as you can handle. Still consider the option of bringing in someone new. You the GM and you the original players get another character to work off of, and that helps with the variety issue in keeping the long runner going. You also give a player a home; this Eberron game got started because there are often more prospective players than there are games, after all.

Of course, do this carefully, particularly if the game has already been running for a long time and everyone has gotten used to the current dynamic. While I’d encourage bringing in an entirely new player, be careful about overwhelming them by dropping them into a high level game. I’d also advise that more than one person in the group already knows/meets the new person beforehand to help avoid personality conflicts.

Avoid Temptation

I mentioned game ADD up above, and next to scheduling issues I’d wager that it’s the second leading cause of a long running game ending up in the Graveyard.  It’s pretty easy to get a little tired of something  if you’ve been doing it for long enough, and we live in a time when new games are very plentiful. You see a new game, you buy the new game, you start to think about all the awesome stuff you’ll do as a GM or player in the new game, and your enthusiasm for the current game just sort of peters out.

The best way to combat this is Keeping the Players (and GM) on Their Toes. If there’s enough variety spicing up life, then the group is less likely to develop wandering eyes. But you can also make some smart purchasing and conversational decisions to help.

First, don’t buy every new game that catches your eye. I know, I know, they look awesome and fun and stars above know I’ve caved myself more than once. But if you’re enjoying your current game, and you know it’s going to keep going for a while, why muddy the waters? Either the new game’s siren song seduces you away from the current game, or the new game sits on the shelf and collects dust. I’m not saying never buy anything else while you’ve got a game on. You can collect them for a rainy day or for when the long runner ends, and as I believe I mentioned they’re awesome and fun. Just . . . keep it under control.

Second, once you have caved and bought the new game anyway, limit how much you bring it up during the long runner’s game night. Don’t give the new game too much spotlight which should be going to the current game. Before or after the game, when everyone’s just chatting? That’s better. On not-game-night? Even more so. But don’t dangle your new game in front of your group like bait too much or they just might go for it. Recently I’ve mentioned that once 4e Eberron ends I might want to run 5e Curse of Strahd, or maybe a Star Wars game, or something entirely new and different and exciting, but I’ve usually ended that with “but that’s future!Seamus’s problem, let’s get back to Eberron” and a dismissive hand wave.

Hang Out Outside the Game

A game is stronger and more likely to last if the people at the table are friends, either before the game even starts or they become so over the course of the game. A great way to make sure that happens is to make sure that the game isn’t the only thing you ever do together.

The Eberron group has spent a few weekends up in Maine and a couple of nights at Arcadia (the bonus there is getting a session in over the course of the weekend) and meets up at least a little every PAX East since ’13, but it certainly doesn’t have to be such a big deal and often isn’t. Play some video games. Have a group movie night. Invite one another over for parties. Dig into that collection of board games for once why don’t you? Form a team for trivia night. Chat on social media, or text or call now and again just to see how your friend is doing. Exchange books or games, or recommend that awesome show you’ve been watching.

Now I don’t really like to brag, but this is pretty awesome advice just for life and friendships in general. Don’t only have one thing going for you. But in the context of keeping your long running game running, everyone’s more likely to keep hanging out on game night – and believing that there’ll be another game night even if there’s been a hiatus – if everyone’s just really good friends, darn it.

Know When to Fold Them

This last one isn’t about keeping your long runner going. This is about how to deal with it ending before its time. Sometimes the schedules just don’t work anymore, things get dull despite your best efforts, you can’t recruit any new players, the new game is just too shiny, or people just grow apart. It can be a hard moment to notice, and until it comes you should try your best to keep things going, but admitting defeat when it’s inevitable will make things easier for you.

The original ‘Alpha’ Eberron party is a decent example, but the best I have is probably my first 4th Edition campaign that I DM’d. only my second DMing experience ever. Original world, the party dynamic developed naturally over several sessions and the PCs had great chemistry, I was always surprising the players with some new danger, and so on. Everyone was enjoying it. Then some people moved, jobs changed, if I remember correctly there might have been a marriage in there too, and months passed without a game. By the time the group reformed, everybody including me spoke wistfully of getting back to the old game . . . but we had moved on to other ones and were having a great time, and reviving the old would mean abandoning the new. I know that personally I was able to look upon the old game with much more fondness once I stopped dreaming of campaign necromancy and let it rest in the Graveyard.

Try to give the old game a proper send-off, though, right? Tell your fellow players your backstory secrets the next time you’re just chatting before the new game starts, or give away a few of your GM secrets that you never got to show off. Indulge in some reminiscing or storytelling now and again, because if you can that means the old game earned it.

After 4 years, 24 levels and counting, and more demons than the players likely want to consider, I’m looking forward to seeing where the final adventures of Alek Dacar d’Cannith, Peren of Aerenal, Verdeloth of the Reaches, and Capax of Xen’drik will take them. It’s been an epic journey that I’m quite proud to have taken them on and kept going this long, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Got any advice or hard-won lessons yourself? Share them in the comments! After all, it’s a long adventuring road ahead, and we could all use all the help we could get . . .


12 thoughts on “The Long-Running Campaign”

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