When writing, one of the most important things to know is the audience you’re writing for. And while sometimes it may be obvious, it may also be that writing for a subset of your audience helps focus what you’re doing and clarify your intent. In writing for Cannibal Halfling Gaming, sometimes the audience I write for is myself. No matter what I write about any given week, I go either run or play a session with my home group nearly every week, and just like so many gamers I’m always looking for things to make my games better. So it was when I wrote ‘The Curse of the Wandering Eyes’. The person who the curse had afflicted in my life was myself, and I still am tempted by so many games and campaign ideas that I come across.
When considering my affliction, I asked myself a question. How would you structure a campaign in such a way that it would keep your attention? What would you actually need to go back to the same storyline week after week? This series of articles is an attempt to answer that question. There are certain gifts that a longer campaign gives, mostly in the form of more and more robust character and setting development. Growing attached to a character that you’ve seen grow and change over months and years is an amazing part of role-playing games, and at the same time seeing a setting really become familiar and ‘lived-in’ engenders a lot of affection for and attachment to the campaign. Getting there, though, can be tough, and it requires some long-term thinking and planning.
There are three elements which make up the Anti-Boredom campaign plan. First is the foundation: what genres, settings and plots support long play? How do you write a campaign knowing that the ending is nowhere in sight? And perhaps most important, how can you support varying conceits and characters as the campaign evolves, ensuring that things can change? Second comes the discussion of system, of game mechanics. What games support a long arc of development, and what tweaks can you use to better allow longer-form play? Finally, there’s actually playing the game. What’s the best way to prep a game that may require a lot of material? How should you take notes? And how do you deal with your cast of characters changing, from a character death, retirement, or other exit?
If you’ve decided you want to lock in to one game for a while, it’s important that you like it, even more so than if you’re planning to run something for a few weeks or a few months. The biggest problem with running a very long game is that the extra payoff over, say, a 5-10 session game doesn’t really start to come for a while. If anything, the best attitude to start with is that you’re designing a game that you intend to keep playing after the point that you’d normally wrap up and start something else. So when we discuss how to plan Anti-Boredom, there is a Rule Zero that’s paramount: It has to be fun for you. If you think you can write a long fantasy epic but have no actual interest in fantasy, your idea is doomed from the start. With that in mind, we’re going to look at how well genres could work, how well settings could work, and how well plots could work. When it comes to figuring out which is best for your table, though, that is very much on you.
There are two basic types of conflict in every story: Conflicts which are external to the character (exogenous) and conflicts which are internal to the character (endogenous). If you are running a role-playing campaign, these are generally also divided into conflicts you write and conflicts your characters write, which can sometimes mean that the party is being pulled in a lot of different directions. One great benefit to running a long game where the party’s cohesion and camaraderie is well established is that it gives the players some space to more fully explore those endogenous conflicts, and give their characters some resolution that in a shorter, more focused game they’d never achieve. One great difficulty, though, is that your typical exogenous conflict will be fully resolved, giving you the complicated task of on-ramping another one.
Longer games, somewhat ironically, benefit from smaller, less grandiose conflicts. If you have one grand villain, steepling their fingers, trying to take over the world, then when you take the villain out, you’re done. You have nowhere to go. A big unexplored wilderness, though, offers no such finality, even if there isn’t that one big bad to lead up to.
Another big benefit of many smaller conflicts as opposed to one overarching one is change. There’s any number of things one can find out in the world, and if you’re going to be spending a long time in that world it stands to reason that the characters are going to want to experience them. Even among fairly conventional conflicts, shifting from monster hunting to court intrigue to small village drama can help shake up the game and keep things interesting.
Shifting conflicts is also where those endogenous conflicts can come in. The longer you want the game and, by extension, the characters to stick around, the more hooks from character creation or their backstory you want to incorporate. This is going to give the party a whole mess of things that can push or pull them in a number of directions, and all of those things will also help you develop the setting, especially if the players contribute their vision to how the hooks play into their character.
As a longer game should necessarily have more dangling threads and more complexity, you as the GM should be sparing with urgency when it comes to the conflicts. Urgency works well as a spice; making the characters run to do something every once in a while can make a session or short arc exciting, but doing it all the time invites burnout. It also encourages players to put their blinders on and focus on what they perceive as most important, instead of wandering and taking more time (and the idea here is to take more time). This is a common fault in video game plotting, where the hero is given an urgent task (think Fallout 4, where your son is missing) but yet at the same time invited to go on a bunch of random sidequests, explore, and generally do anything but advance the main plot.
This does imply that big, long campaigns are easier to do without a big main plot, and I think that’s correct. You can spend a lot of time in a sandbox, and there are many ways for players to see their actions unfold even without some big guiding storyline. What makes that work well, though, is a setting which is appropriate for it. You need a place that’s large enough to explore, but small enough for players to feel like they’ve left their mark. If you’re going to be running a campaign for a long time, the setting becomes another character in the story.
When you’re building a setting for a campaign that’s going to last a long time, there’s a mistaken belief that the main thing the setting needs to be is big. If the campaign is long, you reason, then there should be a lot of different places to encounter and explore. At the most basic level this is correct, a longer campaign is going to cover more ground. However, thinking about your setting as a series of places that the characters will visit once is going to get you into trouble.
This is actually a problem I personally have when using large settings, something I call ‘linearity of place’. This has a lot of potential origins, but the easiest one to point to is Dungeons and Dragons. A dungeon is something you ‘clear’, a place you visit once in order to get the monsters and loot, and then leave. That works fine if you’re playing a self-contained module, but much less well in the context of a broader world.
For multiple reasons, when you design a setting for a long campaign, you’re going to have to consider the fact that there will be places your PCs go to more than once. It’s not just going to be the home base, though that’s a good place to start. Rather, the entire area in which the campaign takes place should be full of places that the characters come to know, for good or for ill. This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be new places; exploration is a pillar of many games and it’s not hard to make a region that your characters will be bushwhacking through for a long time. Once one of these new places is explored, though, it’s really a waste to have it never appear again.
A common piece of GMing advice is to make sure that your players can see the impact that the characters have on the world, and the longer the campaign is the more true this is. If we’re talking about exploration and (in the context of your setting) truly new places, there’s a massive opportunity to do this. Every adventure site you provide your players, be it a dungeon or an abandoned space station or an isolated settlement, may change after the characters tromp through. If the temple filled with zombies is cleared out, maybe the worshippers return. If the abandoned space station has its life support turned back on, maybe someone moves back in. It is nice to show the players their handiwork, yes, but the other function of changes like this (beyond a dynamic world being more interesting) is that now you have a whole new adventure site and a whole new set of character interactions that can take place. Settings for long games need some amount of size, yes, but they also need depth.
The thing that grounds plots and settings, in most cases at least, is genre. While you can of course do something completely new or completely unhinged, for a long campaign you’re going to have much better buy-in if your players can do a little trope alignment. It’s also going to make it easier for you if you know whether the game is going to take place on a mysterious continent home to many dragons or in a far-flung solar system halfway across the galaxy.
Genre informs plot, on the other hand, to an extent which can make it clear that some genres work better than others for longer and slower games. The superhero genre, as an example, demands fairly straightforward resolution of threats and a lot of escalation. These elements taken together can make it very difficult to run a longform supers game without burnout or escalation to utterly ludicrous heights (this happens in other superhero media as well, consider Avengers: Endgame). While both space opera-style sci-fi and traditional fantasy stand in contrast to this, the most important thing, more important than what’s ‘easiest’, is what will be most fun for you and your group.
Genre is the place where we start running into the issues of wandering eyes more acutely. Both plot and setting encourage chunking, lots of discrete parts that can be explored and re-explored. Genre, on the other hand, is where there’s less variety and where people can and do get bored. I’ve definitely been running cyberpunk and felt like I needed some fantasy in my life, only to run the fantasy and feel drawn towards superheroes, to then think I needed something post-apocalyptic. Genre, within the bounds of a consistent campaign, is harder to mash up. Or is it? It might be hard to answer the question ‘what one genre of game could I run for the rest of my life’, but it suddenly becomes easier and more interesting if you’re asking ‘what two genres would I combine and run for the rest of my life’, or ‘what three genres’ even. This is going to be your world and your adventures, so mash things up. Throw some Barrier Peaks action into your fantasy. Write a campaign about a society of gentleman time travelers in a steampunk setting. How about a slice of life game where magic returns to the world, or a dimensional split that traps characters on two sides of a massive apocalyptic event? If you’re going to spend a lot of time in a game, go hard on writing something that incorporates everything you want it to. At the same time, if all those ideas sound more convoluted than you’d like, you can just go with something more straightforward. And of course, if existing settings are more your speed, you can run a very long campaign with one of those, in a known corner of a genre. But materials and mechanics are something we’ll get to next time.
Even without talking about what games to use or how to run it, you can start to see what Anti-Boredom looks like. A variety of areas and things to do, driven more by players than by an overarching plot. Lots of things to explore, with enough depth that players will want to return. Plenty of conflict, but not necessarily any urgency to drive characters towards a central storyline. It’s all a little vague, but the idea is not only to make it easy to generate enough material for a long game but also to keep it interesting. Seeing change and revisiting old places are great ways to leverage longer timelines, whereas high-intensity plots make the stories that come after feel anticlimactic, and nudge both players and GMs up an ‘escalator’ of power and threat level. Genres which have a lot to do with the ‘unknown’ tend to have tropes which encourage prolonged exploration.
How one runs an Anti-Boredom campaign is a bit more of a trick. Characters and gameplay should change over the arc of a campaign, but how much and how fast? How many different things are there going to be to do, and do you need a game which has rules for all of them? And are you making your life easier by picking a relatively light system, or by going with something a bit more complex and robust? I will address those questions and more in the next installment of Meet the Campaign!
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