Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom part 3

From time to time, you’ll see the gaming press and sometimes even the broader ‘nerd’ press pick up a story about a years-long or decades-long RPG campaign. One thing you’ll immediately notice is the focus of these articles: “Meet the GM who keeps on using the same damn world”. “This group has been playing one single game for 35 years. See how the GM does it.” The GM is the key to any campaign, but when a campaign is both long and sustained, others take notice. Long and sustained is the key for an anti-boredom campaign, and though it may not last 35 years, putting in the work will help keep a long, complex, and rich campaign going for longer than you may have initially thought possible.

GMing a long-running game isn’t about shortcuts, but it’s not not about shortcuts either. As a campaign builds history and increases in complexity, the amount of work the GM must do just to keep everything straight is going to increase. ‘Lazy GMing’ isn’t a preference here, it’s a way to make sure you can do everything you need to do without burning out. This is also where much of the content of the other articles begins to synthesize. A system with more mechanics that support what you want to do will take less effort to run. A setting that is constrained but has depth is much easier to do bookkeeping for than a sprawling wasteland of 150 dungeons and ten nation-states. That said, once the game has started, all that’s left to do is run.

Running the Game

As a GM, your job is simply to present the world to the players, and then adjudicate what happens when the characters interact with that world. On one hand, if it sounds simple, that’s because it is; no mechanics are needed for 95% of situations characters go through and that’s because common sense dictates an outcome shared by everyone at the table. On the other hand, how one chooses to adjudicate the remaining situations and in deference to what broader forces is the topic which fuels essentially all RPG discourse. A PbtA game and GURPS do not demand different skills of a GM, they only demand that a GM structure their adjudication and resolution on either a statistical model of physics or the game’s prevailing sense of drama.

Whether you adjudicate based on physics, drama, karma, urban planning, or a Tarot deck you keep behind your GM’s screen, what makes it possible to prep and run sessions consistently in a long game is keeping the amount of stuff you make up on the fly to a minimum. This means three things: manage the scope of what’s going to happen in a session, prepare the complex elements as much as you need, and when you need to improvise, provide exactly what you need in the moment and leave the rest for later.

Managing the scope of a session is, with the exception of session 1, a post-game activity. When you end a game session definitively (as opposed to ending on a cliffhanger), you’ve either just posited a question or received the answer to a question. Put another way: When a conflict ends, the characters either wonder what their next best course of action is, or they make that decision immediately and expect to then execute on it in the next session. The latter option is obviously easier for a GM; if you know what the characters are going to do, that’s what you prep. This means that if you have time to turn a question into an answer at the end of your session, you should do it. Give the PCs time to absorb what happened in the session, debrief, and pick their next move.

When you don’t exactly know what the PCs are going to do next, this is when you’re going to want to make sure you’ve prepped all the complex elements currently active in the game. Complex elements are NPCs, encounters, locations, and threats, and for the most part you do not want to be pulling any of these out of a hat. Although GMs have varying levels of improv skills, the fact is that PCs trying to decide among three different adventure sites that you’ve already prepped to some degree is a lot less daunting than PCs deciding they need to go find ‘a guy’ who has until this point not existed. Prepping complex elements is not about having NPC flashcards or random monster tables, it’s about understanding the story and setting well enough that if the PCs choose to do something, you have enough in your quiver to produce a logical reaction to that something from the setting. That also doesn’t mean it’s all scripted, nor that you need a sheaf of NPCs pre-written. It simply means that, if the players want to do something, you the GM will have written enough that you can make that happen. Plus, if you do a fairly good job at this, then when you inevitably need to say “we can do that but I don’t have it prepped” then your players will, instead of being annoyed, be thrilled that they outmaneuvered you.

And this is where the last thing comes in. When you need a quick answer, give the quick answer and then revisit after the game. If you don’t need to set something in stone, don’t; if your players are demanding details then you can use their successful rolls to give them the ‘privilege’ of naming and describing the character instead of you. Beyond what’s directly demanded, though, don’t play any pieces before you have to! There will be lots of NPCs, and you will kick yourself if you continually give up opportunities to make them interesting and integrated. There may be memes about players hyperfocusing on a random bartender, but if you opt to make the bartender a little less random in your post-game prep, all you’re really doing is giving your players what you want.

All of these things are connected through one practice: notes. Take many many notes, even if you’re bad at taking notes. If you’re really bad at taking notes, invite players to take notes and do session summaries. I find recording sessions, especially if you’re playing online, is a really easy way to take incredibly detailed notes, though using them for recall can be difficult. This is also a good place for something like an ingame wiki, and this will be more useful the longer and more intricate the game gets. Like everything else, if you keep an ingame wiki or an adventure log, let the players contribute, both for them and for you.

Reacting to Players

There are three storytellers in every role-playing game: the GM, the players, and the dice. The GM must always be ready to react to the players and the dice, and you shouldn’t be surprised to find out that the players are more likely to surprise you. Reacting to players isn’t about how to improv or how to buy time, it’s about understanding why players do the things they do; knowing the playstyles in your group makes it easier to anticipate, yes, but it also makes it easier to understand what your campaign must contain to maintain player interest over the long run.

Ultimately, every single decision one of your players makes will fall into one of three categories: Reactionary, Narrative, and Strategic. Narrative and Strategic decisions are fairly self-explanatory, they’re decisions made specifically to fulfill either story or gameplay desires. Strategic decisions you will be able to anticipate fairly easily, because as the GM you will have enough system mastery to understand the motive of a strategic decision. Narrative decisions you should also be able to anticipate if you’re paying attention to how the player is moving through the story. If you don’t know the motives of all your characters, the most likely reason is that you aren’t paying enough attention to how the players have been reacting to the situations you’re putting forth.

Reactionary decisions are the interesting ones. Reactionary decisions are decisions to get a reaction, and that’s not always as antagonistic as it may sound. If a player is trying to make something wild happen to throw you off your feet, sure, that might be a little antagonistic. The most common Reactionary decisions I see, though, are mechanical ones. Imagine a PbtA game where, in the situation happening ingame, one of the character’s moves could be triggered. This move has an equally high chance of making the character do something awesome or catastrophic, but no matter what is rolled, it’s going to be interesting. Knowing that the chance of failure is higher, the player triggers the move, and then everyone holds their breath until the die falls.

Now, you might say, isn’t that a Narrative decision? Well, kind of. The Move that makes things more interesting for good or for ill is definitely moving the story forward, and the story may in fact benefit from something bad happening. But that’s why such a move would still be a Reactionary decision. It’s less about making a decision to effect a certain narrative outcome and more a decision to see what even happens. That said, these three types aren’t mutually exclusive, and Powered by the Apocalypse, where one will “Play to find out what happens”, is a perfect example of that.

If you’re running a long campaign, you’re not only preparing the locations and cast of characters, you’re also paying attention to your players to see what makes them tick. The reason reacting to players is more important in a long game is because you need to get your players as engaged as you in order for the campaign to stay alive. The interest of the players will cause them to push on the world, which will in turn give you interesting things to react to and prep, which will in turn keep the players interested and engaged. This is one reason that, though you can use pre-published material easily as part of a long campaign (and it’ll save you some time too), you need to make sure that it fits into the broader structure and that there are on-ramps and off-ramps. Even good dungeons can be bad story elements, and I’d go so far as to say that more often than not you’re going to need to massage, alter, or even rewrite parts of modules to make them work in your campaign. Even within the same setting and mechanics there’s often little consistency, and large third party libraries make this problem worse.

If you’re truly planning on running the same campaign for dozens of sessions and possibly years of time, player buy-in is what should be top of mind, even more than your prep and your consistency. Of course, invested players are going to have opportunities to make really interesting decisions as the campaign continues.

The Long View

All the prep and background work for a long campaign pay off as things change. As I mentioned earlier on in this series, there’s no real reason to run a 25 session campaign if the world is the same in session 1 as it is in session 25. Looking broadly at how things change is an added element of prep that builds as the campaign continues, and some of those changes can be significant and drastic.

The best example of a massive change I can think of would be a character exit. I say exit because, although character death may be a thing in a long campaign, a character leaving the group for whatever reason can be just as if not more impactful as one who is felled in battle. A character exit also serves as a good example for any change that impacts the world of the characters, any change that requires more work than just noting it in the setting bible. What happens after a character leaves? How does that change the rest of the characters? Especially if you aren’t building a story around one massive arc, it’s possible that big changes during the game cause changes in how the players want to attack the story, if at all. That’s one consideration that is going to happen as a result of in-game events: are the characters done now? Running an anti-boredom campaign doesn’t mean that you never want the game to end, only that you, the GM, aren’t going to be either constraining it or pointing it to an end. But if the end comes naturally, how do you do that?

On the other hand, just how much change can you integrate? PbtA games are typically described as being poor for campaign play because the advancement arc comes to a fairly dramatic close after roughly 10-12 sessions. The final advances in most PbtA games are things like ‘retire’, ‘change playbooks’, or even ‘add a second character next to the one you’re currently playing’. These changes will often shift a campaign so dramatically that they lead it to an end, much like what’s described above. But what if you could actually keep the momentum going? Imagine playing a game of Masks where you’re playing through four years of high school. You might need to make a few changes (I’d limit the ability to take Adult Moves, as an example), but overall you watch your heroes grow and evolve over four different ‘campaigns’. And yeah, some of them might leave school, or become completely different people. That’s what teenagers do! But at the end you’ve had a campaign that’s much, much longer than what people consider ‘typical’ for PbtA and hell, in the process you’ve made it about growing up. I would run that game; you could even throw in recurring yearly events in each arc and get to see how they change as the party gets older.

The long view is important to an anti-boredom campaign because, at the end of the day, it’s really the reason you’re playing such a long game. Even if you’re happy sticking with the same system and the same setting, you still don’t need to lock everyone into the same characters and the same timeline unless you’re going to make those characters and that timeline matter. It’s at the end there, when your setting feels like a real place and all the characters feel like real people, that you’re creating something that couldn’t come about any other way.

There isn’t necessarily any ‘special sauce’ to an anti-boredom campaign. Much of the advice above applies equally to any multi-session campaign, any role-playing game taking place in a consistent setting, even. The longer you run, though, the more the game builds on itself. Running a game tightly, taking good notes, and keeping everything straight in your mind is important for all games, but keeping your campaign’s history well-organized and available for use is what’s going to make your long game not only work well but be special. And that’s ultimately the goal here. You don’t need to run the same game for three years. If you really can’t quiet the wandering eyes after 15 sessions, you’ll still be able to run great campaigns in that time. If you do, though, decide to go the anti-boredom route and design a campaign that you’ll want to keep at for a long time, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to build something that you won’t build any other way. The ingredients, all the locations, NPCs, and story beats, may be similar or even the same. But when, after years of play, the party breaks for the last time, it’s going to hit different. The world you create over long-term play could not possibly come about any other way. That said, it’s up to you, the GM, to take on that creation from day one, and to run the game in such a way that gives you the space to hone your world at the same time.

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