The RPG space is filled with unchecked assumptions regarding what gaming groups actually do. We already know that market information is hard to find, but it’s even harder to find information on how people consume whichever RPGs they choose to consume. Are they playing mostly in organized games hosted at game stores? With a group of friends at someone’s home? At cons? How often do they play? How many different systems do they try? We have, as one of my players once said, no hard data but a lot of assumptions and circumstantial evidence. The one element which is most significantly reflected in how games are actually designed is how long a discrete ‘game’ or ‘campaign’ is intended to be played.
The term ‘campaign’ comes from wargaming. The predecessor to an RPG campaign as we understand it was a sequence of miniatures battles. Before Braunsteins or other proto-RPGs were developed, wargamers and wargaming referees would write sequences of battles where the outcome of one battle would affect what happened next. This notion of continuity, alongside the individual actor simulation of Chainmail and the motive-driven play of the Braunstein scenarios would come together in Dungeons and Dragons from the very beginning.
The long-running campaign has been the de facto “standard” for D&D and other traditional games for some time, though there was nothing about D&D which demanded this. The engine that ran D&D was its modules, which generally provided several sessions of play. Still, by the time AD&D came out in 1979, the journey from level 1 to level 20 provided the most universal arc for any D&D game. Of course, if you’re a very disciplined GM and can get through three average combats per session, it will still take you around sixty sessions of play to go from level one to level twenty, at least in the modern editions where I can extrapolate that number from challenge rating. That would be, given the average frequency of meeting for the groups I’m in, between three and five years of play.
Needless to say, game design has evolved to reflect a broader range of time commitments. One-shots, especially with dedicated one-shot games, typically get right into the heart of the gameplay or thematic content very quickly. This comes at the expense of character development and immersion. The long-runners still exist, but are both quite a bit of work and also, as implied above, a significant time commitment. And while they’ve always been an option, there are more games that overtly support a 6-12 session length, exploring a single plot thread or arc before heading into a mechanized endgame or resolution.
One-shots are how con games work, and as such have been well-supported since the beginning. Nowadays they are also the engine which drives many indie games. The modal form of the modern indie RPG is a game which aims to explore a specific theme, conceit, or mechanic, and generally the playthrough ends before anything becomes stale. Kira Magrann’s Something is Wrong Here and our own Jason’s House and Home both fall into this modal form, providing structure, prompts, and then resolution which are designed to explore something specific (a Lynchian mystery and the collective memory of a family home, respectively).
Bigger games almost all support one-shot play in some manner, it’s just a matter of playing to the amount of time you have. That said, most advancement and progression mechanics get lost in this format, as well as any mechanics designed to drive the story in between sessions of play. This may not matter so much; GURPS and Cyberpunk 2020 are examples of traditional games which don’t have particularly robust advancement mechanics. If you’re playing D&D, though, you’re only going to be able to sample the range of characters which the game supports. If you’re playing Burning Wheel, you’re probably missing a lot.
Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) has put a spotlight on short campaigns. Apocalypse World gives each character a finite number of ‘advances’ they can take, and after they take five they open up an additional list of advances which will, when taken, dramatically shift the timbre of the campaign. Whether you retire a character, write a second one, or switch your playbook, the game is going to change. Some games, like Monsterhearts, even make the opening of this list a trigger to ensure that each player ends up picking one at around the same time.
There’s nothing about the length of the PbtA advancement arc which necessitates that you end the game after reaching the “advanced advances” (something that usually happens between 6-8 sessions in). That said, the nature of these advances mean that once someone takes one of the big ones, it serves as a punctuation mark for the campaign. It’s up to the players to look at their story so far and determine whether they just wrote a comma or a period.
6-10 session games are great in many ways. They can generally be completed in under a year by even the most schedule-challenged groups, and in 2-3 months by those who are lucky enough to meet anywhere near once a week. The length gives plenty of time for character development, and plenty of time to build a satisfying and more complex plot than would be possible in a one-shot. That said, if the character you play in one of these games is at all complex, and has more than one conflict to resolve, a 6-10 session game will leave you looking at a character sheet and feeling like you just got started.
A one-shot is like a single half-hour episode of TV. A short campaign is a movie, maybe even with a sequel or two. A long-running campaign, though, is the seven seasons of prestige television. You can explore themes and plots in one-shots, and you can have real character development in short campaigns. But if you want to engage with a world, it’s going to take a while. Campaigns that keep their momentum going for multiple years and in excess of 30 sessions are those where there is still more to explore about the characters and the world around them. This is one place where D&D is pitch-perfect: The power curve of going from level 1 to level 20 provides a perfect outline for a GM, who can trace it and have an epic story arc at the ready.
Fact is though, most of these games don’t last. We humans are easily distracted, and it takes a lot of investment to want to keep exploring the same world for multiple years. I’m not here to give advice on how to do this, Seamus already wrote that article. I do have to observe, though, that there is an inherent tension in games like D&D and Burning Wheel which provide detailed and robust advancement mechanics: the implicit message is that if you don’t stick it out, you aren’t going to see all the cool stuff that you can do in the game.
While we in the RPG space talk about long-running campaigns, most traditional games are fairly indifferent to how long you play. Very few games have the structured advancement mechanics of either a D&D or an Apocalypse World. It also highlights one curious thing that traditional games almost completely lack: endings. To be fair, neither D&D nor Apocalypse World have endings either: both have arcs structured by their advancement mechanics, and both kind of just run out of rails once you reach the end of those arcs. Most indie games, in contrast, end. There is some end-state where the conflict is resolved, and then the game is over. This lack of end-states in traditional games is an important observation, at least due to the fact that said lack of end states is exactly what makes the length of a game an open-ended question.
RPG design continues to work through the tension of resolution versus exploration, and many games disclaim responsibility in directing their players to a clear ending. The indie space has done a lot more when it comes to writing games to tell specific and discrete stories, but the potential for long, epic campaigns with deep characters is appealing to many, many people. What I would personally like to see are games intended for the longer, more open-ended mode of play which have more structural support for longer, open-ended storytelling. This is complicated; there’s a reason why most PbtA games tend to have a long enough arc for one conflict. That said, there’s some work being done on this front. Legacy: Life Among the Ruins is a PbtA game which robustly mechanizes a campaign with one arc after another after another. It doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a traditional campaign as players create a new character for each arc. Still, Jay Iles and other designers out there are thinking about bringing more robust story characterization to longer games.
The focus and deliberate mechanics of indie games have made for groundbreaking one-shots and numerous short explorations which push the RPG medium. The relationship-building and exploration inherent in long games explains a lot of their appeal. No matter how long a game you prefer to play, there are inherent differences in short, medium, and long games that will ensure that none can be a perfect substitute for any other.
You can actually buy the clock seen in the header image here!