After playing the same campaign for months, after numerous fights and encounters, finding many magical items in dusty tombs, do things tend to go stale for you? Do you struggle keeping your campaigns fresh and the players on the edge of their seats from first session to the last?
One of the best campaign I’ve ever game mastered was the Dark Sun campaign City by the Silt Sea using 4th edition rules. It was simply awesome, I had great players and the narrative had a great build-up and reached a perfect crescendo in the perfect final battle. On the other hand, my worst campaign was probably a Warhammer 40K I wrote myself and fizzled after only three or four sessions. It simply got derailed after the first session and never got back on track.
But what makes a good campaign and why do some campaigns seem to go stale? Of course, there are many things that can kill a campaign, everyday life probably being the most common reason. Groups have a problem finding time for sessions, players moving away, the kids, so forth and so on. But sometimes no matter what you try, your well laid out campaign doesn’t seem to make it past 6th or 7th level before players are getting bored with their characters or have become interested in playing something else.
Creating a campaign that can be played for months, even years, and always has the players interested is not that easy. In fact, it’s takes an experienced game master and an artful narrator, talents that you only acquire through study and practice. Some pitfalls you need to discover for yourself, others you can learn about. But long as you play, you are learning.
Optimal length of a campaign
First of all, there is no optimal length of a campaign, other than the limits that your group has. Some players don’t like to play for many months within the same narrative nor the same characters session after session, while other players thrive in such an environment. You need to figure out, either by talking to your players or through experience, what your group’s limits are.
A fellow game master and Yawning Portal author, Helgi Már, once said to me: “I like to envision my campaigns as TV programme. Each episode is about one session and the campaign makes a series. Perhaps, if the players are interested, I might add another series.” I like this approach. TV programmes ideally have a defined beginning, middle and end, the narrative and the form is predefined and the players know what to expect. After a “season” you ask your players if they’d like to continue.
Today many developers have turned away from releasing modules and campaigns. Just look at what Wizards are doing now and Chaosium has done for years. If you’ve played through campaigns like Beyond the Mountains of Madness or Masks of Nyarlathotep you know that trudging through these can be a real forced march at times, despite the fact that these are awesome campaigns and interesting narratives. Just the first two chapters of Beyond the Mountains of Madness can make action-hungry gamers cringe, since going through inventory list after inventory list doesn’t score high on the action-meter.
Why downtime matters
Many game masters however, especially old farts like myself, prefer modules that have a definite beginning, middle and end. I’d rather have number of modules and tie them together in a campaign, than having a long all-encompassing campaign. My experience is that it usually offers the players more freedom than modern campaigns do when played as written. I often feel this need for an ever-ongoing narrative in campaigns, where the player characters have little or no time to spend time with family, tend to their businesses or even account for seasonal changes, increases the chances of a campaign going stale.
I think this is handled really well in One Ring RPG. You have your adventure phase, where the characters go on an adventure, and then your fellowship phase, where the characters tend to other worldly matters. In between adventures you have summer, fall, winter and spring, the birth of children, going out of business or making new friends. The setting becomes something more than just any other backdrop for the action-part of the narrative.
Through downtime, where the player characters have time to do something other than chasing kobolds through underground lairs or investigating old libraries in hope of some forbidden lore on unnameable horrors, your characters are also more likely to form more attachments to the world around them. The downtime, even if it’s a mere week spent in the famous Yawning Portal Inn in Waterdeep, gives them time to experience the world from another perspective. They might meet a loved one, form a friendship or even make enemies. Don’t hesitate to invest time in describing and narrating the downtime, even if only as a montage.
Making it all worth your while
If you use downtime to make the player characters feel as if they are a part of something larger than themselves, something even larger than life, you instinctively give your characters a chance to feel invested in it all. So that they might have something more to lose than a chance to acquire a magic sword, they might feel more obliged to act when they witness something evil if they have a loved one to care for, a young one that looks up to them or even if their business might suffer.
As a game master it is your role to make sure that every character feels that risking their lives to fight evil is worth it. Being a hero is not fighting evil simply because it’s evil, but because we fight for the ones we love, to make the world a better place for them. Or as Rose Tico says in the Last Jedi: “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”
You don’t have many opportunities to bestow this feeling while the characters are being chased through a burning Star Destroyer by a platoon of Storm Troopers, but you do when they get a hologram transmission from home once they return to the rebel base.
Groundwork for character development
I think one of the most important things to do in order to make sure that your campaign doesn’t go stale is to leave room for character development. As the campaign events unfold, as the narrative progresses, the story is is affected by the player characters and they are in turn affected by the events. No matter how Bilbo and Frodo wished for, the Ring had a heavy impact upon their lives and the way they perceived the world. Why shouldn’t the same apply for the player characters?
If you leave a enough room for the characters to discuss and ponder on how the events have affected them the chances that your campaign goes stale diminishes. Simply for the sake that the players aren’t playing the same person for months, their character develops and changes. See how Luke Skywalker starts out as this naive boy from a Tatooine moisture farm but ends as a galactic hero and later a broken man, who has lost all belief in what he once stood for before becoming a Jedi master again.
The world needs saving… again!
One of the surest way to kill a campaign is overusing tired tropes and cliches. If the player characters constantly need to save the world in your campaigns, it quickly gets tired (I’m looking in your direction, Wizards). How many times does the world need saving anyway? If there are constant plots to dethrone the prince of the city, your vampires might sooner or later get tired and decide to find themselves something else to do.
Sometimes it might be just as fun to figure out what happened to Ol’ John the farmer’s goat. Sometimes the events in your campaign might be more interesting if they are on the micro-level, and not on the macro. If you keep focus on micro events, at least for the first sessions, it’s easier to build the character’s relationship to the local world and they feel empowered enough to take on the macro events when they become more evident.
This is done incredibly well in the old AD&D campaign Night Below. You have your local home base and many smaller events that slowly start to paint a horrifying picture. As the story progresses the PC’s finally feel compelled to step up and take on the larger challenges.
Make sure that you are having fun
The final, but most important point. If you are not having fun, no one else at the table is. Tell stories you’d love to hear. Set an example for your players. This is so important. If you’re not in the mood to play or you don’t feel you’re able to deliver, it’s better to simply postpone a session than pushing through.
If you are smiling, partaking in the joy and sorrow of the players and making sure that they don’t feel that the campaign is a competition between you and them, you will all have more fun. And fun is the best antidote to a campaign going stale.