How can a campaign last for decades, and what does such longevity imply?

Ask the gamemasters

A question recently asked us,
I remember Mike mentioning his decades-long superhero game a few times, and am currently planning my next campaign, so I was just wondering how y’all can extend a game so far. Even if the players are still having fun and there is interest, there has to be a point when everything just got done (at least if they stay with the same characters). After a long enough time, all of a character’s goals will be accomplished, the ultimate BBEG will be taken down, and there are only so many ancient evils that can return to haunt you. Once you are literally on top of the world, where do you go from there? I imagine that constantly increasing scope (threats from previously unknown planets / galaxies / planes / multiverses / (insert bigger thing here)) gets old after a while and there are only so many revolutions to squish before that gets old as well.

Is the trick to make sure the players never make it to the very top? Or perhaps never give the campaign that large of a scope to begin with? Another issue with my group in particular is that they don’t have much interest in “endgame” content (specifically D&D 3.5, no epic levels) where most of what you do is manage your newly carved out empire.

In that long superhero game, did at least some of the players have the same characters from the beginning, or were they perhaps made into NPC’s after a while and everyone started a new party? I guess it can be my lack of experience, but new characters in the same setting seems to be the only way I can think of to keep my group interested for that long.

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer

Our Inquiring GM has hit the nail squarely on the head. To survive for decades, the campaign has to be bigger than any one style of threat, single player, group of players, or individual character. The campaign, and even the game setting, has to continually reinvent itself. I have so many tips to offer on this subject that I could easily fill five, or ten, or even twenty posts examining each in detail -and will, eventually. But here are 14 specific things that can be done to enhance the durability of the game, in a necessarily-abbreviated form…

Subcampaigns

The first thing you have to do is to break up the campaign into Subcampaigns, each with their own set of goals and objectives. These could require anything from 2 years to 5 years of play to complete. Their outcome, one way or another, should radically and permanently alter the status quo of the campaign. One of the goals of each subsequent campaign is to explore these changes and deal with all the people who will try to take advantage of the circumstances.

Overarching Megaplots

Within each subcampaign, you should have multiple plots occurring in parallel, sometimes connecting, sometimes conflicting. Some of these should span subcampaigns. Each Megaplot should comprise several scenarios, complete stories in and of themselves, like episodes of a TV serial. Every time a new opportunity to gain power looms over the horizon, every enemy with the capability of knowing about it should react to it in some way.

Reinvent the Campaign Background

As GM, you should regularly go through the events within the campaign, and try to imagine circumstances in which the minor side events and subplots assume new significance. There was an encounter with a rambunctious janitor three years ago? Maybe he wasn’t really a janitor…

Let PC actions perpetually change circumstances

The campaign setting must continually react to the presence and actions of the PCs. Allies can become reluctant (or enthusiastic!) enemies, enemies can become sometimes-allies, good guys can be corrupted, bad guys can reform. In most campaigns, the campaign background dictates the behaviour and roles of the NPCs, and they don’t often change (and it’s a big deal when they do); in a megacampaign, the NPCs change to meet the needs of the next plotline-sequence. If you have to, throw in a subplot or scenario or even a series of them that explains the transformation (even if the PCs don’t know that’s what they are there for).

New Threats constantly arise

Every change in circumstances that results brings about domino effects. Some of those dominoes set chains of events in motion that bring new threats to the surface, or which reinvigorate old threats. Think of it as a chess game in which every time a piece is captured, you put a new one – with different abilities and aspirations and loyalties and flaws – on the game board.

PC-Centric Plot Threads

Every PC should have at least one plot thread running through each subcampaign that relates directly to their character, who should emerge transformed in some way from it. For example, one PC in the current champions campaign has just discovered that she inherits a lot of her spunky independence from her grandmother, who she never met (because the PCs mother was estranged from her mother, who was an intrepid go-anywhere-for-a-story-no-matter-how-dangerous reporter. I’ve only just introduced the NPC grandmother, the current subcampaign is about to end in a big finish, and the player has to be wondering whether or not the NPC will figure in that big finish…

Mix Up The Style

No campaign can achieve true longevity telling the same style of story week after week. You need action-adventure to mix with politics to mix with life-on-the-street to mix with… well, you get the idea. I’ve even had scenarios that consisted of the PCs sitting around a table arguing about their organisation’s charter and by-laws – with every word said required to be “in character” (out-of-character suggestions could be passed by note). One memorable scenario was a cooking contest… and then there was the time the paranoid ninja had to go to the supermarket for some tomatoes….

Even stranger concepts can come from placing familiar plot styles in an interesting setting and reinventing the plot accordingly. A wild-west inspired plotline becomes something quite different when you’re talking high-tech supercooled psychokinetic crystalline entities on Pluto…

Exit Strategies

The GM should have an exit strategy up his sleeve for every character and every player. Some way that they can be pulled from the campaign at relatively short notice – four or five sessions of play, at most. And there should be no hard feelings when someone moves on – they might come back, eventually. Of course, the campaign will evolve to accommodate the absence of the old character or player and their style, and the presence of the new character and style – sometimes in unexpected ways.

Retire Old Characters

Another key is to force players to retire their old characters whenever it is appropriate for that character to call it a day – or go independent, or whatever. These then become NPCs under the GM’s control, even if they were killed.

Recycle Characters as Players change

If a character’s plotlines are too tightly-woven into the overall plotline for them to be retired immediatly, you have two choices. The bad one is to make them an NPC – this risks stealing the spotlight away from the remaining PCs, and costs a lot of spontaneity.

The better option is to find a new player who is willing to take over the character. Whenever that happens, you should sit down with the new player and let him totally rebuild the character from the ground up, retaining only the central character concepts and established personality traits; you then need to write a campaign plotline in which this transformation takes place, either quickly or slowly over time. From the moment they take over the character, they are considered to be the owner of that character.

One of the PCs in my current campaign has had three owners; with the first, he was a somewhat happy-go-lucky strongman with a lot of shadows lurking in his closet; with the second, those shadows came out of the closet, and he became a feral killing machine; and with the third, he is struggling to control his inner demons and is slowly coming to terms with his past mistakes.

Be Prepared to change the rules

No rules system can survive for 10+ years unmodified. Cracks emerge, new versions of the system emerge, and so on; every now and then, you may need to insert an appropriate “cosmic event” to “explain” the changed rules in-game. The corollary is that you can change the rules anytime it seems appropriate. At one point, the campaign consisted (for about 2 years) as a series of solo “miniseries”, each starring a character from the core campaign. In theory, these were all taking place more-or-less concurrently – it actually took ten weeks, game time, to run all 16-or-so sub-campaigns. For one of them, the PC was translated into Call Of Cthulhu; not only was his miniseries run by a guest referee, it had a guest rules system! It worked…

To every NPC, a subplot

Every NPC should have something to contribute to the campaign. Not all at once, but every time they show up, they should do more than make up the numbers. And at least one of them should show up in every plotline.

Lessons from Soap Opera

If you can force yourself to do it, or you happen to enjoy that sort of thing, watch some TV soap operas. Characters continually coming and going, motivations and relationships perpetually changing, never-ending plotlines – they may be cliched, but they are also the most accurate paradigm for what you’re trying to achieve when you set out to create a megacampaign.

With great power comes great responsibility

In a long-duration campaign, everyone shoulders additional responsibilities. The GM has more work; he needs to take responsibility for keeping the campaign going and keeping it fresh. The players have greater powers over the long-term shape of the campaign than they realise, but they also have to accept that sometimes, their character may not be the centre of attention for a whole session of play; their turn will come, they have to be patient. And the characters? By definition, they have great power, and its up to ‘them’ what they do with it.

This barely scratches the surface of a huge subject, but hopefully it gives you the tools you need to create the megacampaign you’re dreaming of.

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s Answer

This is an interesting topic. It is a lucky GM who can keep a campaign going for so long. I like Mike’s advice. Below are a few tips that overlap with Mike’s but hopefully have new details for you.

Make evil diffuse

Avoid black and white in campaigns that will last for such a long time. When things become either/or, good/evil the structures and permutations become apparent, predictable, and stale after several re-tellings.

Instead, go with grey scale or spectrum thinking. Leave extremes to locations and situations, but keep NPCs and quests near the middle as unpredictable elements whose properties you’re never quite so of.

For example, as Mike mentioned, make alliances with enemies possible to achieve party objectives faster, easier, or cheaper. Generate quests that are dilemmas (there is a cost to completion no matter the solution).

Instead of having a clear villain the PCs must fight against each time, create three-way (or more) situations that involve relationships and resources and conflicting interests for the PCs to resolve. Just removing one group from the equation does not resolve the situation (i.e. the PCs can’t kill there way to victory). And resolving the situation just results in a new, dynamic configuration that needs rebalancing.

For example, a drought hits the land. To save millions, the three parts of an artifact that can control the weather must be assembled. The PCs must choose which part to go after first. Rivals and enemies will be pursuing the item pieces as well.

When the PCs finally retrieve the piece they’ve quested for they learn the other two pieces are in the hands of rivals. Each rival wants something before they hand their piece over to be united with the other pieces. The PCs can whack each rival, negotiate, compromise, etc.

If the PCs don’t want to do any of this, you can have higher agencies take care of the resolution, but the final results require more PC intervention and service.

The relic is finally assembled. It turns out that the drought is being caused by the actions of three nations far to the west. While the relic provides temporary succor, the PCs are charged with finding a permanent solution.

More quests later, involving the western nations who are at war with each other, result in the drought being solved, but at the cost of more troubles for the east. The PCs are brought in again….

Side quests

As Mike said, use side quests to fill out the campaign so it’s more than just about the current villain being fought. The best side quests will also add depth to the PCs as you mine their personalities, relationships and backstories for quest inspiration.

Make side quests about the PCs – not the plot or world or campaign. Feel free to tie things together, but be sure the primary focus is on one or more characters.

Run a meta-level side game

Have your players tried a well-run world builder, realm management, or resource management side game? Games like the D&D Companion Rules, Reign by Greg Stoltz, and Aria have rules for shepherding meta-level game elements such as kingdoms, setting development, god management, and warfare.

Surf around and co-op rules for this type of gameplay and run a short one-shot to give players a taste. They can’t pass judgement until they’ve actually tried it.

You also do not need to have all players participating at the meta-level. Run a side game by email or before/after games. As news, stories, and campaign consequences emerge from the side game you might get more players interested in joining.

Develop the characters deeper

This has been mentioned already, but to call it out again: do not always progress the story forward. Get some character development going as well. For example, while on a mission to steal plans from Villain HQ you let a character know his parent’s village is en route. You spend two or three encounters in the village, perhaps old friends of the PCs being amazed at how the PC has changed (will the player gloat or be humble?) plus a fun contest with the locals (will the PCs make new friends or enemies?) and then maybe a quick remedy quest for the sick grand daughter of the village elder (the remedy involves a PC having to overcome a fear or flaw).

What do the players want?

Ask your group what they want. They might get a lot of satisfaction from defeating ever-larger villains. They might not be bored with the recurring gameplay even after all this time. Some of my players, for example, love whacking things because it’s fun and stress relief – they want me to just point them in the right direct and put lots of monsters in the way.

Introduce new elements all the time

Keep the campaign, the world, and especially the PCs fresh by always adding new details. Make things change. Add new elements. Destroy old elements.

Keep good records

Record a lot of details so you can use them for inspiration and expand them into larger campaign elements. As Mike said, mine previous gameplay for inspiration and new challenges.

With such a long-running campaign, you have the rare advantage of drawing on living campaign history to spawn new quests and objectives. This means you cannot GM a scorch and burn style of game where every element gets trashed. You have to get into the habit of creating and leaving open loops.

For example, switch an NPC victim to a pregnant NPC victim. Months or years later you have the option now of using the child NPC as a future adventure device.

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