The Long Game

Posted on Mon Feb 08 2016

I want to offer a metaphor for the challenges you'll encounter as GM of a long-running roleplaying campaign. That metaphor is this:

A long campaign is like a road trip you undertake with your friends.

J. Michael Straczynski famously wrote his seminal television series "Babylon 5" in a way that long-running games can emulate. You can read more about it here. I'll refer to this a few times in the text that follows.

Decide on where you want to go. Have a premise for your game. The premise isn't the superficial plot. It's not "elves vs. orcs" or "everyone plays demons". It's the seed that creates new stories once old ones are finished, or have become boring. Sometimes this is a theme, like "fantasy racism" or "free will vs. determinism". Sometimes it's an approach to the game, like "roll dice, kill monsters, take their stuff, have fun".

JMS had a solid set of criteria for Babylon 5, and a clear long-term premise: "do for  sci-fi television what Hill Street Blues did for cop shows". No cute robots, no kids. Sticking to his guns let him spin out a story that felt consistent, because it was. It had internal logic, and rules, and it followed a pattern.

Show everyone some pictures of the destination. The players only know as much about your world as you tell them. If it's based on some existing franchise, like Star Trek, it's often enough to tell them that. But an original world, or one that's divergent enough from expectations, needs to be explained.

Make sure your friends are in for the long haul. When you start a campaign, you might think "I'll just ask them if they want this to run for awhile." Don't settle for just a "yes". People want to be agreeable. People go along with what they think the group wants. If you hear "yes", ask the followup: "what interests you about this game idea?" Get an answer that makes sense. The level of detail you got will tell you how invested they are in the idea. You'll also get ideas for how to proceed with the game.

The most important thing is to keep your wheels turning. A campaign is made or broken by momentum. Whatever slows the campaign down, from player problems to confusion about the rules, is a bump in the road and friction on the tires.

Small problems that recur often are worse than big problems. You need to find and eliminate anything that slows your game down.

Respect your players' time and preferences, and they'll be willing to come back again and again. The time we spend in your game is a cost, so make it as cheap and rewarding as possible.

Sources of friction can include:

  • An unfamiliar game system. This isn't always true — sometimes "let's try this new thing" is the whole pitch for your campaign. But if the newness of a game gets in the way of the story, it can slow the players down.
  • An unfamiliar or disliked tone. If you're running gritty military sci-fi and your players wanted Star Wars, they'll find ways to get out of the game, if they can't bend it in the direction they want.
  • Lack of commitment. If you schedule your game at the best possible time and stick to that schedule, setting expectations that it will happen, the players will usually cooperate in that effort. But if you seem wishy-washy or reluctant to run, the players will pick up on that. Lead with your expectations, and your group will follow.

Let other people take turns driving. You'll cover more ground. It's much less effort for your players to care about your world if it's their world too. When people are personally invested in something, they'll work to see it continue.

Allowing players to add to your fictional setting takes some of the creative debt off your shoulders. You don't have to let people take turns GMing — although you can - but you can give players a say in areas of the game they find interesting.

Not everyone drives in fourth gear. Not everyone's comfortable in the fast lane. Players have their own schedules and their own lives. Taking up their time unnecessarily introduces friction - if your campaign is more annoying than fun, they won't want to play.

There's four general venues for play:

  1. Face-to-face gaming at regular intervals, e.g. 3 hours every 2 weeks.
  2. Real-time gaming via Google Hangouts, Skype, video chat, etc.
  3. Real-time text-based gaming.
  4. Play-by-post.

I'm in a live game, running every other week. It lasts three to four hours, but it takes three hours to drive up there. That's three hours of my day I won't get back. On the other hand, I get immediate feedback via body language from everyone at the table. I instantly know if an idea is well received or crap.

I'm in a Hangouts game. There's no travel time, I just sit down and play. But it's harder to get a read on the other players. I have to look at them one at a time, and make a guess.

In a real-time text-based game, nobody can see anyone else. Different communication styles lead to misunderstanding. On the other hand, I can paste large blocks of text into the game, leaf through rules while the other players make plans, or do things that would be disruptive at a live table. Furthermore, it's super easy to scroll back through history to find out for sure if something was said earlier.

Finally, I'm running a  play-by-post supers game. The enemy of that game is delay in posting: people have gone for a week or more between posts, and I've often seen more apologies for lateness than actual posts. But there's plenty of time between posts to talk about approaches, hammer out new plot ideas, and ask questions that don't disturb the rest of the group.

Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses. Searchable history in text is a big benefit. The speed of voice communication is a different benefit. Ability to read body language is balanced by travel time and scheduling. You should figure out what the biggest pain point will be for the campaign you want to run, and choose the right venue to ease that pain.

Stopping at a motel for the night is the end of A journey, not THE journey. Long campaigns are made up of shorter stories. Good stories have payoffs. When your first story reaches its end, it will be tempting for your players to feel closure and interpret it as the end of the game. Interest might start to wane.

Before your first story reaches its climactic ending, try to have planted seeds for the next one. Alternately, make your story's ending logically suggest the start of another.

For example, the adventuring party has rescued a kidnapped elven princess as their first story. Returning her to the castle feels like denouement. But is that where she wants to be? Is she going to be safe there? Is she in an unhappy arranged marriage? Has she fallen for one of the PCs?

Take this approach in moderation. Your campaign can't run at fourth gear all the time. The game needs breaks, slow times, and breather moments. But always give the group something to look forward to.

You'll get lost without a good road map. The more important details are to your game, the more likely you are to want a tool to keep track of them. Shared documents courtesy of Google Docs, DropBox, Evernote, or Wikia can all help players keep track of important things.

There should always be a space where each player can post something new, or edit what's already been posted. The players will naturally keep track of the things that are important to them.

If the players don't care about a detail, and you don't either, it's okay to fudge it. If they care and you don't, encourage them to keep records. If you care and they don't, that's a problem for your story, not record keeping. The story elements you introduce are meant to grab their attention, after all.

Not every idea will be good immediately. Write it down anyway. It will be useful in the future.

Everyone needs landmarks, sign posts, and mile markers. A good long-running campaign won't ignore its own history. Prop up some "tent poles" in the campaign, things that the players can rely on for the most part. Long-lasting support NPCs, consistent and predictable technology or magic, a base of operations, and so on can contribute to a sense of continuity.

Your route will send you on detours. This is okay. Each of the characters that JMS wrote came with some internal tension. People had rivals, superiors, problems, and plans. A single external menace, such as the Shadows in later seasons, could represent different things to different characters. They were a military or social conflict for Sheridan, but essentially a moral conflict for characters like Londo Mollari.

JMS structured his stories in ways that would survive changes in production, such as an actor leaving the show. Many of these "trap doors" came from the internal tensions that had already been established.

A famous military general said, "I made all my plans out of rope. When something broke, I tied a knot." You should be prepared for your plans to change. Players come and go, or don't show up. Characters that are crucial to the plot wander off or do something else. Don't pin too much weight on a single player. Have contingencies ready if the players surprise you.

Your game may end with a different set of players, and a different direction, than you started with. This is okay. The most vital quality of a long-running game is adaptability. A game that gracefully survives change will last longer than one that can't, or won't.

When you get to your destination, stop driving. Sometimes your game will reach a point where it logically feels like it should end. Maybe it hasn't run long enough for your tastes. Rather than stringing it out, try to accept a conclusion to the story. Remember, though, that you can always do something else with the material you've all worked hard to create.

The same characters can start a new story, or perhaps their descendants or inheritors can. Elements of an old campaign can make it into a new one.

Thanks for reading! Please share your opinion, or contribute ideas on how to create and sustain a long-runner.