Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom part 2

The role-playing hobby is an embarrassment of riches. There are so many games, so many game ideas, and in contrast to that, only so much time. You don’t need to be all that prolific to reach a number of campaigns you want to run that will take literally your entire remaining life…and do so even if you’re just in your 30s. It’s from this massive buffet that we want to find one dish we can savor; that’s the concept of anti-boredom.

If you were here with us last time, you saw a discussion about the plots and premises that can feed a long-running, deep, and memorable campaign. Today, we’re going to start executing on our anti-boredom campaign by figuring out what support we need to make it happen. There are so many games under the sun, but some are better suited to long-running games than others, and an even smaller number still can truly support the breadth of play that will keep you, the multi-genre, multi-system, and ultimately very easily distracted GM, from abandoning them.

There are two major elements to a game system supporting a long and focused game. The first one most people think about is the player arc. Dungeons and Dragons provides an epic arc, or at least an epically long arc. Going from level 1 to level 20 in D&D will, assuming only minimal excursions away from party-balanced encounters, take 860 combat encounters (because the three pillars are a lie) to go from level 1 to level 20. In the extremely optimistic case that you can get through an adventuring day a session, that’s still between 100 and 140 sessions of play, which will take a group with average scheduling proficiency between four and seven years to get through. Here’s the thing, though. Does grinding through nearly a thousand combat encounters sound like fun? Maybe. Does grinding through nearly a thousand combat encounters in Fifth Edition D&D sound like fun? Probably not. That brings in the second element to a game system supporting a long and focused game. If you’re going to be playing the same game for a long time, you need a degree of breadth. You don’t know where the story is going to take you, so the mechanics have to give you enough to make whatever that destination is interesting. D&D may change incrementally from one level to the next, but when you consider how much time it takes to actually earn five, ten, or twenty levels rules as written, it becomes much easier to understand how much content, how much story, a solidly long, solidly not-boring campaign takes.

The Character Arc

Part of the point of running the same game for a very long time is that things are going to change; if nothing was really different about the setting or the characters 20 sessions in, then you aren’t losing anything by succumbing to your boredom and running something else. So in an anti-boredom game, we need session 20 to look different than session 1, and to do so in a way that required those first 19 sessions to get there. The way that a game must enforce change (as opposed to enabling change, which will be discussed below) is in its rules around character development.

As I’ve talked about before, it’s only important that characters change over their playtime, not necessarily ‘advance’. That said, advancement is such a baked-in meme in role-playing games that if popular games support a mechanically interesting character arc it’s inevitably through advancement. This is one place where D&D actually differentiates itself from a lot of other games: Choices in D&D when you level up are mechanically distinct and mechanically interesting. Which D&D you choose matters; both editions of Pathfinder have more complexity than Fifth Edition does. That said, whether you’re poring over more intricate build paths of the earlier games or making the somewhat more simplified subclass decisions of 5e, you’re still making large, chunky changes to how the character operates which help make the game feel different as you progress. This is good design because, just like in character creation, when characters advance and improve, players don’t want freedom, they want the perception that their choice is significant. A game which merely lets you spend your experience points incrementally as you earn them may give you more control over your character, but it denies you some of the dopamine of the ‘ding’ from levelling up.

The reason more incremental games are better, though, is that there’s a fundamental limit to how much advancing a character can do within the mechanical paradigm of the system you’re using. This is another place where D&D differentiates itself: Though you can argue how well D&D’s early, middle, and late game mechanics are actually balanced, the fact is that D&D has an early, middle, and late game, and many, many games fall apart when trying to provide the same amount of differentiation over their advancement arcs. Take Genesys, as an example. Because the Narrative Dice used in Genesys and the FFG Star Wars RPGs have blank faces (meaning that the results space expands as you use more dice), late-game Genesys is statistically a worse game to play than early game Genesys. The dice results get more swingy, and the breadth of the results increases without the attendant mechanical support to interpret those results. That’s not to say late-game D&D isn’t without its problems (though certain editions like 4e have excellent late-game mechanics), but many games treat the arc as simply linear, resulting in a much poorer experience the longer you play.

There are issues from long arcs with relatively quick advancement that are system-independent; even if you like late-game D&D you may not always want it, but your game of puckish rogues running from kobolds will only last until level 3 or so. If your concept is narrow, you need to slow advancement down. This too is better done at a system level, because your players still want that advancement dopamine hit and just giving out fewer experience points is denying them that and (in their view) little else. This is one reason why I like Burning Wheel from an advancement perspective. You have incremental advances that can happen relatively frequently, big, significant advances that happen quite infrequently, and to top it all off, Beliefs, which are what the characters most want and want to do at any given moment, are checked and updated often, giving players a good barometer on how their characters are changing, at least in terms of their wants and needs. Burning Wheel may not be your game of choice, but for a long game, having a mix of big, small, and frequent character changes is going to keep players engaged.

Regardless of what the advancement system in your game of choice looks like, running a very long game is going to require other types of change. No one has ever said “oooh, remember that combat? We got 3500 XP!”. What you’re more likely to hear are things like “that’s when Regnar lost his leg” or “that second session when your Bard got housed and you already needed a second character” or “and then the dragon just hung out after we succeeded the check!” The biggest and most significant changes are mediated by the events of the game, not the system of awards and advancement. That may mean character death, if your group wants that. But it will always mean letting the consequences of ingame events be sticky. Beyond advancement, the GM needs the entirety of a game’s mechanics to tell a long, impactful, and continually interesting story as characters develop and change.

The Breadth of the Game

Rules help make ingame events matter. If all you want to matter is violence and killing things, then good news, because virtually every popular RPG can help you. If you (like most people) want more than that, the search becomes a little more difficult. For an anti-boredom campaign in particular, though, we’re not as concerned with the specifics of what the mechanics can help support, but how many different things the mechanics can help support. The more different activities your players pursue, the more breadth the campaign has, and the more likely that you, the GM, will maintain interest as the campaign continues.

While D&D merely pays lip service to the notion of the Three Pillars, they serve as a good start point for you to find other games that actually support them. The Three Pillars are exploration, social interaction, and combat, and while D&D is fairly poor at everything but the combat, not all games are. That said, solid mechanical support for all three pillars is a bit, well, aspirational, and even better games typically excel at only two. Twilight:2000, for example, has a very robust combat system as well as detailed and functional travel and survival rules. Social interaction, though, is handled by essentially one skill and has little depth beyond skill checks. Genesys, as a different example, has cinematic yet detailed combat rules and extends those rules into social conflicts adeptly, using four types of motivations (strength, flaw, desire, fear) to provide ties from character personalities into the mechanics. Exploration, or travel mechanics outside combat? Essentially none, barring (again) skill checks.

Not all campaigns need all three of these elements, but longer games typically do. Take Masks as another example. Masks is built around a pretty classic PbtA advancement system, which sees characters ready to make big changes or leave the game entirely at around the ten session mark. With that length in mind, the game does incredibly well focusing on the social conflicts of its teen protagonists as well as providing a fair helping of superhero-style combat. If you were to run a Masks game longer, though, you’d find that the lack of external context makes it difficult to sustain the stories that worked fine in the compact arc. Halcyon City is a construct of tropes, but if you were running a long game there you’d want to cement some geography, a consistent rogue’s gallery, and an understanding of where the characters fit into the superhero ecosystem. Exploration of the city, even if not geographical exploration, becomes necessary for a longer, deeper set of storylines to emerge without repeating themselves.

I’m not saying that a game is no good without touching on all three of these elements, nor am I even saying that there are that many games out there that really give all three enough attention. The important thing to understand is that whatever the game does not do, you must do yourself. This need not be hard; Twilight:2000 not having much in the way of social rules doesn’t prevent you from writing interesting NPCs. Genesys not having robust exploration mechanics doesn’t stop you from drawing a map. 

What a system needs to do is augment your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses. If you like game design and low-level thinking, then choosing Fate for your system and building out the mechanics you want as Extras may be just what you want. If you think you’re useless at coming up with interesting setting premises, then Electric Bastionland, with the evocative but infinitely portable city of Bastion, can really help prop you up. What you’re building is a toolkit, and the best system is going to be the one that provides the most tools that you need and the most tools that you want to use.

Where this ties into breadth is that you don’t know where your game is going to go. If your players want to settle down, you’re going to wish you were playing a Free League game like Forbidden Lands or Twilight:2000 with home base mechanics. If your D&D adventurers decide to start a business you’re going to want to have Xanathar’s Guide to Everything which provides at least some of those rules. The longer your game goes the more things will happen…you might not literally need a fishing minigame, but what if you do?

This also gets at the underlying thought process behind believing that lighter games are best suited for short engagements. When a game has fewer rules, there’s less differentiation, mechanically speaking, between any events that happen within that game. A lot of people think that this means that the game is only going to be entertaining so long as that smaller experience stays mechanically interesting. This is both fair and not. Sure, a game where everything is resolved by a single d20 isn’t going to have much depth, but what makes the underlying events interesting is not that d20 but the GM that’s telling you what the d20 means. A lighter, less mechanically differentiated game may take more work to produce a long and satisfactory campaign, but that doesn’t mean that lighter games aren’t up to the anti-boredom task. A GM simply needs to know what they’re going to do on their own, and what will need support from the system. This may mean that you want a more complex, more robust game, but that is a preference, not an objective judgment of capability.

So what system is going to work best for your anti-boredom campaign? Well, the one that lets you do your favorite bits of GMing and supports you through the parts you don’t like. I personally find that games which keep me engaged have more mechanics and gamify more elements, but not everyone is going to agree. It comes down to what you want the system to do and what you want for yourself. Want a system that gives a solid backstop for anything you could imagine? GURPS might be great…but you’re going to put in a lot of effort setting everything up and moving the story along. Want that giant zero-to-hero arc? You might want D&D…but know it’ll let you down virtually everywhere other than combat. You want the map to mean something? Pick up Forbidden Lands, but know that the uniqueness is going to come from what you put on that map, rather than any tricks the system has up its sleeve.

To run a single campaign for a very long time, you need a system which has your back. But for that campaign to really succeed, it’s the GM that needs to show up for every session, week in and week out, and make the world and its stories come alive, not only for your players but also for yourself. So what does running this anti-boredom campaign actually look like? Come back next month, and we’ll start to put all the pieces together.

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3 thoughts on “Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom part 2”

  1. I really like worlds/stars without number. I’m trying to start a forever game (one huge setting, one system, troupe play, and several games) with SWN and it seems to be going fine, I guess we’ll see after this arc/characters end(s). Into the Odd and OSE were 2 of the systems I though about, a few PbtA games fit the bill (I started a Freebooters on the Frontier game locally), but SWN had enough crunch to sink our teeth into and I have some experience with WWN as well.
    Running Ultraviolet Grasslands has been a challenge, there is a whole set of systems baked into it and juggling that with a system new to my players has been daunting. I’m really loving the play though!


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