I’m a campaign GM. I’m significantly more nervous running one-shots and short series. There’s a safety for me in long campaigns- I have time to fix things. But really I enjoy the slow development it offers and the chance to play to find out what happens over the long haul. In this episode of Play on Target we talk about how we’ve handled long campaigns, for good or ill. As I mentioned in my notes for last episode, we're especially lucky in that we're joined by Rich Rogers for this one. He graciously came in at the last minute. You can check out his work with theIndie+ network as well as on The Gauntlet podcast. He also works for Dr. Tom the Frog.
Here are twelve thoughts, epiphanies, and tips I didn’t get to in the episode:
- Preventative Maintenance: Take care of problems early. If you think a game has legs, deal with personality clashes and play tics from the start. If you let something go, it becomes more difficult to address. A player may think they’ve gotten approval for their behavior before. Check in with players in the early days to uncover anything you’ve missed with the at-table dynamics. It’s always good to fix these things, but crucial for the health of a long campaign.
- Save the Date: Most of the long campaigns everyone discussed didn’t have any sense of how long they’d go (except for mine). They just rolled on and went well. My instinct is to have an idea about campaign length at the start. But after this episode, I’m not sure that’s a necessity. But you need to make sure players know it could be open ended. A couple of times I’ve joined “limited run” campaigns. But campaign keeps running along well after limited has expired. Then I feel a little stupid. I hadn’t planned that commitment. But at the same time, I don’t want to ask “when’s the game ending?” for fear of looking like a spoilsport. My feelings about transparency in campaign expectations comes from that.
- Faces in the Crowd: I love NPCs. I love discovering their voices, seeing which ones the players like, hunting down pictures, and finding out they aren’t how I originally imagined them. But over time you can end up with a huge cast, one which makes A Game of Thrones look like Waiting for Godot. After you’ve created a deep bench and decide to introduce a new NPC, ask yourself “Can I bring the same info/plot/perspective with an existing character?” Work to add depth to existing characters.
- Yes, But…: In the episode we toss around the topic of bringing in new players. That probably deserves its own show. My fellow hosts offer good suggestions for integrating latecomers. Let me refine my idea. A couple of situations make adding a new player to a long-running campaign more difficult. One, if the player is new to the real world group as well as new to the campaign. You then must manage several dynamics. Two, if the existing players played the setting in previous campaigns. It’s easy to miss how much a group relies on callbacks and insider info. That can confuse and alienate new players, even if they’re playing a “new to the setting” character. Three, if the campaign has many NPCs, plots, and mysteries. Not even a cheat sheet will help in this case.
- Yes, And…: On the flip side, it’s easier to bring in a player late in the campaign if they know the rest of the group. That eases communication about. Sam also mentions the importance of campaign type. Some games, episodic or with little continuity, make switches easy. The campaign’s state can also impact this. I had a fantasy campaign than had been running for about a year when we had a big switchout of players. The resulting group split evenly between old and new. It worked. In a Changeling the Lost campaign I ran we had huge turnover, losing four of the five starting players. That was tough. In that case, it meant changing the course and tone of the game when we added two new PCs to fill out the roster.
- You Hold the Purse Strings: If you’re GMing a campaign where you set advancement (via points, advances, experience points) be stingy at the start. You can dial that up later. But you’ll have a revolt on your hands (quiet or open) if you close the tap on their precious, precious xp after they’ve bathed in abundance.
- Special Snowflake: I’m an outlier on another point from the discussion. I dislike players switching characters in mid-campaign. The few times it has come up I’ve signaled my negativity. This episode started me wondering why I react that way. At root when players ask to switch, I feel my work and effort as a GM has been wasted. I’ve expanded on character-related plots, developed hooks for them, and integrated their background into the story. It’s not unlike my feelings when a player quits abruptly without giving me a chance to wrap things. But I tell myself my reaction’s about fairness to other players and their character investment, the cost in time to add a new player, and the imbalance of artificially developed vs. levelled up characters. But that’s all a smoke-screen. My reaction’s selfish. It values my pretty, pretty snowflake setting and plot over the player’s enjoyment. I need to take that more seriously and be open to changes.
- Another Kind of Change: Does extended play insulate PCs against their death? There’s pressure when both the player and GM have invested in the PC. In some systems, it makes GMs gunshy about lethality. Even in games with easy death (RM, DCC) GMs may not fudge rolls, but pull their punches. Don’t worry too much about this. But even if that is true, the GM has many, many other ways to harm and challenge a player. Every session deepens a player’s investment in their character and makes them more susceptible to ego-based pushes.
- Lethal Hiatus: Long breaks are poison for a long campaign. Especially when those breaks happen out of the blue or in succession. What can you do? Try to schedule out in advance and get everyone to communicate future problems. Look to bundle together breaks; i.e. take advantage of those skip times to do your own big stuff. Look at the possibility of make-up sessions. The GM may have to do a hard press on this and be willing to run for a partial table. If a GM does end up with a significant break, figure out a way to reinforce the game away from the table. Consider brief news reports or background snippets done weekly. Put together an NPC Pinterest board and use that as the basis of an OOC discussion. Do what you can to maintain awareness of the game. In the weeks before returning, the GM (or even players) should send out a synopsis of plots and stories. Emphasize character-centered hooks. When you come back to the table, the GM needs to approach it with maximum seriousness and energy. Charge up the players.
- Breaking Builds: If you’re going to make serious rule changes in mid-play, talk to your players. Don’t do it by fiat. They’ve invested time in the campaign, just as you have. Be prepared not to alter things or hold off those adjustments for another campaign. Offer players the opportunity to retool characters in the wake of any significant changes.
- Unfinished Business: Alas, sometimes campaigns die. It’s sad and I hate losing games without a resolution. But don’t drag it out, especially if it’s killed by the poison of breaks I mentioned above. We’ve lost several games to cancelled sessions and player schedules. My favorite Exalted game got killed off by a break and then the major life changes of some players. I thought about returning to it, but knew the combination of roster change and lost time wouldn’t work. Most of all I didn’t feel it. In another case, we took a break from one of my absolute favorite campaigns to bring a new player into the group. They’d had awful personal stuff and we wanted to give them something new. A couple years later we returned to it and I spent a ton of time and money putting together cool supplements. But we had one player quit unexpectedly which broke the momentum. Given they were one of the three originals, I felt I couldn’t do it without them. My biggest regret there is I didn’t get a chance to wrap it up, which I could have with a couple more sessions.
- Spectacular Spectacular: You don’t always have to top yourself with new plots and arcs. Sometimes, after doing something big, you worry you’ll never match that again. I know I felt that way at the end of each arc of our Mutants & Masterminds campaign. How could I do better than Hel leading the Frost Giants to attack New York with a host of Jack Kirby giant monsters in tow? One trick is to vary your beats. If you’ve done something big for a long time, go small and intimate for a while. Another is to realize that an events scale and impact don’t come from the moment alone but from the lead up to it. You’ll do fine next time. Players will buy in and it will feel big.
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