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?”
If the answer is yes, read on. If the answer is no, then you are better off running casual one-off sessions then attempting a major campaign. That’s your choice. But it’s not an existential state of the world!
How Many Players?
How many players should you invite to your weekly campaign? Sadly, gamemasters are unevenly distributed, and as a result some gamemasters struggle to find even one or two players while others run the “only game in town” and have to actively limit their players to a manageable number. Acknowledging that reality, there is still a definite sweet spot for how many players you should aim for: three to seven, with five being ideal.
Why is five players the ideal number? With five players, you have enough to cover all the common roles or classes in any game, without so many players that there’s duplication. You can give each player sufficient in-game attention without slowing the game down. If one or even two players can’t make a particular session, you can still run with a group of three or more. And in terms of seating, most dinner tables have six seats, meaning there’s one for you and five for them.
If you are one of the lucky gamemasters who has access to a wide pool of players, you can certainly run with seven (I do), though it will slow the game down a bit. If you have more than seven, though, it’s better to split them up into two groups, or get another gamemaster to help you out.
Tabletop Campaigns are Team Sports, Not Social Events
If you’re planning to start a successful campaign, you need to explain to your friends that you are not hosting a series of social events. You are starting an intramural sports team, and asking them if they’d like to be on the team.
It’s true that role-playing games are like social events in that much of the fun is socializing with your friends. But the problem with treating an RPG as a social event is that the etiquette of social events does not lend itself to RPGs at all. Consider the notion of “fashionably late” at a social event – where you demonstrate your social status by not bothering to show up until the event is already underway. Or consider the notion of “stopping by” a social event, where you put two-three events on the schedule and visit each one for only a portion of the time. Or even consider “blowing off” a social event, where you simply don’t attend because something better came up. You can throw a party that way, but you sure can’t run an RPG when the players are fashionably late, stopping by, or blowing it off.
That’s why I recommend you position the campaign as akin to a sports team. People can often have trouble understanding why they need to show up on time and stay through until the end at a social event, but everyone understands that the quarterback needs to show up at the football game and finish the game.
Moreover, many if not most people have been on an intramural sports team at one point in their life, and so it’s a simple analogy for them to understand and puts into perspective the time commitment. A player who balks at committing to your campaign as an intramural sport is almost certainly a player who will miss a lot of sessions. And that’s important, because missing sessions is one of the worst thing a player can do to a campaign.
Missing in Action
Even with the most well-intentioned and dedicated players, there will be times when one or more of them can’t make it. An ongoing challenge for every gamemaster is what to do when one or more players go “missing in action.” I have seen recommendations ranging from cancelling the game to running with the missing player’s characters killed and everything seen in between. Most of these recommendations are wrong.
The first thing to know is: Don’t cancel the game. The game must go on. As long as you have more than half of your group available (3 players out of 5, for instance), the game goes on. Pragmatically, in any regular weekly campaign, there will almost certainly be one or two absent players in any given session due to work, illness, travel, kids, etc. If you cancel whenever one or two people are missing, then you’ll be canceling more often than you are running. Philosophically, the campaign should be larger than any one player or any one faction of players. If you cancel because of someone else’s decision that they can’t or won’t come play, then you’ve handed over control of the destiny of your campaign to that person.
There’s no hard and fast rule about what you should do with the missing players’ characters. It will depend on the style of game you are running. If you’re running a collective group, then let the attending players run their friends’ PCs and give everyone full experience points, so they stay on the same advancement curve. If you’re running a competitive-collective group, then you should NPC the missing player characters, and award them a limited experience award. If you’re running an individualist group, then the missing player characters are absent pursuing other agendas (or present as NPCs if that’s impossible), and they should not get any experience.
I have used these methods in practice and they work very well. For instance, in our weekly (collective) D&D campaign, with 7 players, we play if there are 4 players available. The attending players run the missing players’ characters while they are away. When I ran an individualist Cyberpunk campaign, missing players were assumed to be off doing another mission. This sometimes resulted in them missing out on important decisions or fantastic wealth, but that’s life in the dark future…
You Must Lead By Example
None of the advice above will sustain a campaign alone. You must sustain it. As gamemaster, you are the heart and soul of the group. If you show up late, you cannot expect the players to show up on time. If you do not put time in between sessions into prepping the game, you cannot expect the players to bother to remember what went on last session. If you cancel the game because you have a tummy ache, then you can’t expect your players to have any more commitment.
But if you do have the commitment, running a long-term campaign is one of the most satisfying experiences you can enjoy. To paraphrase Sergeant Apone in Aliens, “Every pizza slice is a banquet! Every play session a parade! I love the campaign!”
P.S. If you’ve enjoyed my column this week, be sure to check out this week’s features on The Escapist, which are all about Dungeons & Dragons and the Red Box!
Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.