Monday, November 2, 2020

"We Need Long Campaigns"

My aversion to conflict frequently blunts the sharpness of my posts. Case in point being my recent one about lengthy campaigns. My desire not to offend anyone who, through circumstance or preference, doesn't play the same RPG with the same group of people for years on end led to a much weaker post than I had intended. Fortunately, noisms over at Monsters and Manuals said it better than I did:

We need long campaigns. We need to sit down with the same group of people on a regular basis over the course of years, telling the kind of stories which require concentration and thought and, above all, loyalty; stories which gain their own momentum through peaks and troughs, ebbs and flows, ups and downs and ins and outs; stories in which the events which happen matter because they have a context and a background and an unknown future waiting to be discovered. We don't need the inconsequential frippery of the one-shot; we need time.

This is spot-on. It's exactly what I was trying, in my detached, restrained, and roundabout way, to say and yet failed to do. I'm pleased that noisms was nevertheless able to intuit what I should have said more boldly and I am grateful that his own formulation is so unambiguous. 

I remember reading, back in the early days of this century, when the D20 craze was still in its infancy, a post or an article (possibly by Ryan Dancey, though I could be misremembering) that claimed the average length of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign was 18 months and that 3e was therefore designed to take characters from 1st to 20th level in that period of time (assuming weekly play for a given number of hours per week, etc., etc. – the precise details elude my memory). Even at the time, when I was still quite deep in my affection for the new edition, I thought that figure was absurd. 18 months? A year and a half is no time at all – scarcely enough time to develop a meaningful campaign.

In recent years, I've developed an allergy to one-shots. I'll participate in them if it's the only way I can play with certain friends or get to try out a RPG I might otherwise not, but I nevertheless consider it a poor substitute for the pleasures of an open-ended, even languorous multi-year campaign. Indeed, I'd argue this is the way D&D at least was intended to be played, as Gary Gygax states in the foreword to OD&D: "it is the campaign for which these rules are designed." 

Since September of this year, I've been posting summaries – brief and recondite – of my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. I do this partially for my own benefit, since having a written record, however succinct, is helpful to me in keeping many details straight. I also do it to show the "peaks and troughs" of our sessions week after week. Not every session is, in itself, significant, let alone exciting. Many are filled with what to outsiders must seem like minutiae: planning, investigating, interacting with NPCs, and so on. Over time, though, these activities pile up and contribute to the depth and texture of the campaign and the characters in it. 

While there are several throughlines in the campaign, most notably a sinister cult of one of the Pariah Gods and the brewing war with the nation of Yán Kór, little of what has occurred over the past five and a half years has been planned. The "story" of the campaign, such as it is, can only be seen after the fact, as we look back on the slow accumulation of events, NPCs, and details and see in them the seeds of things that would eventually flower into importance and in turn become seeds for yet more, much of it not yet in bloom. It's an amazing process to be a part of and I'm not boasting when I say that we're all participating in some of the greatest entertainment of our lives.

This is great stuff and none of it is possible in "campaigns" of only a few weeks or months, let alone in one-shots. Years are what's needed to enjoy this, so it demands commitment and consistency and a fair degree of discipline. You have to be willing to meet regularly, soldier through "boring" sessions, and not fall prey to gamer ADD. That last bit is especially hard nowadays, since we live in an age of untold riches when it comes to RPGs. I've got a goodly number of games I'd love to play, but I haven't the time right now and might never have it, because I'm involved in a number of long-running campaigns and wouldn't dream of abandoning them in pursuit of the novel. 

A multi-year campaign is, I think, the ideal form of most roleplaying games (there are exceptions, about which I might talk later) – and by "ideal," I don't mean some unattainably lofty goal but rather the most desirable and satisfying version of this type of entertainment. Long campaigns are clearly not unattainable, because many gamers have played in them, including many of the gamers who founded our hobby. M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel campaign started in 1975 and continued, with occasional breaks, until a little before his death in 2012. That's nearly forty years! I don't expect any of my own campaigns to run that long, nor do I think such longevity should be treated as standard, but neither should 18 months. 

No more excuses: devote yourself more fully to a long roleplaying campaign. 

14 comments:

  1. I do love a long dedicated campaign, but I appreciate the importance of open tables, with one DM and dozens of players, to introduce new players that don't understand enough of the game to commit.

    Btw, the expected campaign length in 5e decreased to 10 months.

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    1. I have limited experience with open tables. My House of Worms campaign has regular drop-in players, who come by when their schedule allows, but I'm not sure that's the same thing. Even so, I'm not certain that an open table is necessarily an impediment to a long campaign.

      10 months? That's nuts.

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    2. I haven't had one last more than 4 months and that was without weekly play.

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    3. That's a pity. Do you have any sense why this is the case?

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  2. I too prefer campaigns to more limited runs. My problem is that since I'm often (always?) the DM I suffer from easy burn-out. I try to compensate with mechanics-light games (thus my love of pre 3.x D&D) that do not require intrnsive preparation and modules. To this day my record is about 70 something sessions.
    I feel like my best game is still in my future.

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  3. You and noisms turn my own thoughts into words. When I was younger, I had a really bad case of gamer ADD (probably stemming from my actual, at that time unmedicated, ADD). I would referee a few sessions of one game, then get bored and either switch game or have my players suffer from my obvious lack of energy and enjoyment.

    For ten years or so I almost didn’t play at all, even starting to think that maybe roleplaying games aren’t even that fun, that they are better in theory than in practice. However, since I got my closest circle of (previously non-gaming) friends to try out oldschool D&D, we’ve played almost every other week, hitting our 51st session last sunday. In a way, it feels like we’re gaming the way people did in the ’70s, before D&D started reaching out to the high-school crowd: not with random people that you’ve met in a game store (though there is of course nothing wrong with that), but with real-life friends and their spouses. It is indeed obvious that the long campaign how the game was meant to be played, and I have never enjoyed role-playing games as much as I do now.

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  4. My main experience is with long campaigns, but as I get older I don’t really think in terms of years Anymore. I never liked high level play anyway. 1st or 5th edition, I think lately about being glad to get 12 months. 5th level has always been about an average level top out in the last decade. I also have grown to love change. I hate one shots, but a short campaign is fine.

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  5. I haven't played for years due physical isolation and IRL business. But did play in a couple longer campaigns of several years (cut back, low level AD&D). The story arc from those, punctuated by a couple magical nights of gaming, still provides a bit of 'my story' for which I'm greatful. And keeps me hooked and coming back to sites such as this!

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  6. Wait, if the average campaign is 18 months, so you need to get all the way to 20th in that time? If folks ended at 20th level and you hit it in 18 months, that would create downward pressure on the average campaign length, since by definition many campaigns would be taking longer to get there before you're adding the goal to hit 20th level in 18 months.

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  7. At best the majority of my players down through the years just wanted to get out of low levels (1-3) so they could feel less on the verge of death all the time and become a bit badass around normal folk. Only the occasional power gamer would come along and be desperate to get to high levels but I never really got along great with them anyway and they were rarely one of my closer friends. Anybody who had their heart set on getting higher than ninth or tenth level in a year and a half campaign in my games would end up sorely disappointed. The first couple or three levels come fairly quickly in my campaigns But after that you’ll really feel that you earned every level. They don’t come easy.

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  8. I heard that the average length was 8 sessions, then they break up. my experience has matched that, generally. right now, with the kid and 90 minutes from the big city, I play occasionally. I would love to do more, especially into big campaigns like Horror on the orient express, and Rappan Athuk, but no dice.

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  9. Long campaigns played with close friends are indeed the acme of the hobby. That investment in a mutual creation is what carries the game through the inevitable troughs and lays the groundwork for those 'highlight' sessions that we can all recall even decades after the fact.
    In terms of advancement, that 5e schedule is ridiculous. It took my last group approximately 7 years to get to name level, gaming once a week on average.

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    1. Ditto. 7 years of weekly/bi-weekly play to get to name level.

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  10. Short form games and campaign games are just different things. Novels are not better than short stories. Albums are not better than singles. TV series are not better than movies. It's apples and oranges. Or at least like, grapefruits and oranges.

    I guess I agree with you on some higher level. It seems like everything is getting faster, we have shorter attention spans, fast media, clickbait articles, one night stands, can't just drink one beer like my grandpa did, you have to try a million craft beers.. And so on. None of those things are bad per se, but I think having this constant feeling that you have to try everything IS bad and one shots might be one more example of that.

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