As I work through the second Zelda campaign (as opposed to the Second Zelda campaign, where the party has to figure out which princess is a robot), I’m finding some of my storytelling challenges are different from my normal campaigns. Yes, there’s the issue of running inside somebody else’s universe, but at least I get to play with things much more than I would in, say, Faerun. And I do have to keep in mind that I’m running things like a hybrid of a tabletop game and a video game, but I’m actually enjoying that. No, the biggest change I’m finding is that I’m planning for a much longer-term story than normal.
I have the most experience with thirteen-session campaigns, and I have something of a formula for how to plan, run, panic, and revamp in equal measures. But for campaigns that run much longer the pacing doesn’t work that way. I can’t just stretch the intro out to four sessions, then stretch realizing the campaign problem to five, and so on. I have to look at the whole plot, each arc, and each session in the context of something with a definable end that’s still a long way off. So how do I do that in a way that doesn’t bore my players?
This isn’t the first long campaign I’ve run. The Unnamed Monster Campaign was thirty-six sessions over a year and a half, and the Great Tower of Oldechi was 108 sessions in just under three years (both show the perils of running campaigns in a college town). Thirty-odd sessions and ten months deep into the Zelda campaign I’ve found myself following these general principles:
- Provide incremental progress. One of the things I learned from Wrath of the Cosmic Accountant was to give the players situations where the conditions for success are apparent and measurable. It’s no fun to hurl yourself at an problem for three weeks and question whether the fourth week will provide more frustration than solution. The party needs to progress, and more than that needs to feel like they’re progressing.
There are a lot of ways to go about this. In this campaign the party knew within the first few weeks that they had to beat eleven dungeons (because an NPC told them, but also because they know how many Heart Pieces are in the campaign and they are capable of simple math). Every time they find a dungeon, find an item or solve a puzzle in a dungeon, or beat a dungeon, they are certain they are making progress. Most campaigns aren’t as clear-cut as this, which means you have to get a little more clever in how the party knows they’re getting ever closer to the end of the campaign, even if a given step takes them some time. The point is to not let them sit in the doldrums for longer than necessary. Show them how getting the kingdom’s treasurer arrested leads to their goal instead of having it as just a thing that happened.
- Provide incremental solutions. Kudzu plots are a pet peeve of mine*. In case you don’t want to dive into TV Tropes and come up for air tomorrow, a kudzu plot is when a story branches into mystery upon mystery. Every answer creates three or four more questions and it’s not clear whether or all or any of them will be satisfactorily resolved by the end.
It’s easy to say “I’ll create a ton of mysterious people and creatures and items and backstory and so on, and the players will love figuring it out piece by piece! That’s years’ worth of content!” Well, yes, usually, but that means the players have to actually figure it out. A solution isn’t a solution if it doesn’t solve a problem. This is the “learning” counterpart to the above point’s “doing”; when a dozen mysteries fester for months the players are more likely to ignore them, forget them, or get angry at them (and you) than wait on the edge of their seats until you decide they deserve an answer. And speaking of which…
- Let players take action. One of the things DMs (should) learn early is that a campaign is not their story. It’s a cooperative story where the players and the DM both provide input. You may think “the players will fight the orcs here, which will take them to the evil cult leading them, which will take them to the temple, and there they’ll find the artifact they have to destroy, and all this will take the first ten sessions”. As a general structure that’s fine. Trust me, campaigns don’t last long when you have no direction whatsoever.
But you can’t decide everything about how the players are going to fight the orcs, or where, or when, or whether they try to skip straight to the orc leadership and find the cult right away. They need to be able to make their own decisions, and those decisions need to matter. Maybe they want to fight the orcs in the western mountains, before the scouts set up camps in good defensive positions, or perhaps in the east, where the farms are supplying the players’ army. And maybe they do want to head straight for the leadership, risking that the orcs will gain both the west and the east even if they lose their bosses. Give players the chance to make a decision and allow them to both benefit and suffer from its repercussions.
If you’re strapped for time and you can only plan for one of the party’s possible actions, there’s no shame in kindly asking your players to get on the rails for a while. I’ve done this more than once in my career, and I have an adult enough group to allow it. If I say “Guys, my hours at work were long this week so I only had time to design the dungeon and none of the side quests,” my players say “alright, we’ll do the dungeon this week and come back to the side quests later.” No DM can plan for everything; the DMs who look like they do are just good enough at improvising to make it seem like planning. When something can’t be improvised into something else, it’s alright to be up front with the players and say you’re only prepared for a subset of their available choices. If they hate it you can work together in the future (for example, ending each session with “what are you doing next week?” has done wonders for me).
- Give characters growth arcs. If giving players a boring story is a crime, making them be a boring story is a capital offense. Good characters, like real people, grow and change over the course of their lives, more so when their lives are full of harrowing adventures and kingdom-shaking triumphs. A character who only changes in terms of equipment and numbers gets old fast and becomes more of a burden to a player the longer the campaign goes.
Sometimes the answer is to let a player abandon a character who isn’t working; in the post-Ragnarok campaign I had a lot more fun with Steingeirr, a spear-wielding mountain of a man who only knows thirty words, than Eyvindr, long-suffering straight man to the party’s excessively esoteric sneak/murderer. But they can change characters without a character change. Ask your players what they want their characters to do, what their goals are, and how they want to accomplish them. This is good advice for any campaign but you may find in a long campaign you need to do it more than once. You can’t give everybody an arc that progresses only sparingly until it comes to a head at the final boss because that means it can languish for months without progression. Give the characters challenges and ask them how they want to grow, then let them.
That said, don’t force a growth arc. Some players like having the same character for a few years, and some characters don’t led themselves to dramatic changes. Don’t try to fix something if it’s not broken, but if a player expresses an interest in a change work with them.
All of this is good advice for campaigns of (almost) any length. I’ve just found they’re more important in longer campaigns because the pacing, the story structure, and the payoffs are different. Unless your three-year campaign is actually a series of thirty unrelated one-month plots you need to pay more attention that usual to your players’ long-term interest level and adjust what you’re doing accordingly.
Of course there are two edges to this coin. As a DM you have to enjoy the campaign too, and I’ll discuss that next post.
* — In what I promise was not intentional cross-promotion, I Podcast Magic Missile just did an episode about exactly how ridiculous a plot like this sounds to your players after a long enough time.