Last time we talked about the social dynamics of players, and how most problems that occur are really instances where one player is out of step with the rest of the group. This time, we're going to discuss how to sustain a successful long-term RPG campaign.
Running a long-term RPG campaign is the hallmark of the best gamemasters. The greatest long-term campaigns - Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Glorantha, Forgotten Realms, Arduin, Wilderlands - ran for decades, and literally changed the way people think about fantasy and gaming. Such hallowed success is probably beyond us all, these days, but running a long-term campaign is nevertheless an admirable goal and a wonderful experience.
I define a successful long-term RPG campaign as a campaign that runs on a regular schedule that allows the players to complete the experience available to them from that game. That could mean advancing from level 1 to 20; that could mean exploring the complete sandbox the GM has built; that could mean defeating a major villain. What it does not mean is a slow death because of lack of interest and involvement. And yet that's the fate of most campaigns. It doesn't need to be that way!
Scheduling for Success
The first step towards running a successful campaign is scheduling for success. During the halcyon days of Greyhawk, Gary Gygax ran his campaign six days out of seven, and he was writing not just the campaign, but all the rules, spells, and content! I am not as hardcore as Gary, but I am a firm believer that the most sustainable schedule for an RPG campaign is weekly, and at a minimum bi-weekly. Successful RPG campaigns are sustained by commitment - by the sense that "it's all real" - and that requires ongoing reinforcement of the activities. Campaigns are similar to TV shows in that they require an ongoing immersion in an imaginary world. One week seems to be about the longest length of time most people can be away from their imaginary worlds without losing track of what's going on.
The single biggest obstacle towards running RPGs on a weekly basis is the false belief that maintaining a weekly game is impossible in today's world because we are "busier than ever." But most of us are not, in fact, busier per se. That's the big lie that prevents many RPG campaigns from getting started. A successful RPG campaign takes 5 hours once week plus about 10 hours of prep time. How much time is that, really, compared to other activities that are common in our society?
Consider that the average casual gamer is now playing for 20 hours per week. Consider that the average person watches more than 33 hours of TV per week. Consider that a dedicated World of WarCraft gamer who raids twice per week and grinds the other nights spends 40 hours per week in his game. Consider the time spent by dedicated golfers, who may hit the course every weekend; or by ESPN enthusiasts, who watch sports daily plus all day Sunday as a major social gathering. All of these people commit more time to a hobby than running a weekly RPG campaign requires.
The only reason we seem busier is because we have more options for things to do. Personally, I have managed to run two simultaneous campaigns per week for years while busily serving as CEO of Themis, running a not-for-profit, and even getting (and staying) married. I do it by making my campaigns my preferred hobby, over TV, sports, and so on. For most people, the question is not "do I have time?", the question is really "is this actually one of the things I want to make a priority for my time?"