In a long campaign players will spend a ridiculous amount of time in your world. If you meet for four hours a week you’ll rack up a solid real-world day of game time every six sessions, and extrapolated over sixty or more sessions it’s pretty startling. Now factor in the amount of time you spend working on each session, and the time you spend on pre-campaign prep, to get a feel for how long you spend on your own world. A long campaign needs to be as fun for you as it is for the players, and in terms of raw exhaustion your bar is much higher.
By the time I get a year or so into a campaign I’m usually spending my time following these principles:
- Mix it up a bit. I sort of feel like I shouldn’t need to say this. Don’t run the same session, or adventure, over and over again. Don’t give the players similar orc patrols to fight even if they are in orc country. Don’t start every plot with “somebody from the party’s backstory needs their help.” Don’t end every plot with “but he was not the villain, and now you have made a powerful enemy!” Your formula will wear on you even more than it wears on the players.
You don’t need everything to be completely different from everything that came before it, just different enough that the feel changes. Yes, the players are fighting orc patrols, but those patrols can be doing different things, in different situations, with different types of soldiers. NPCs always trigger plots, but some need the party’s help, some are actively working against the players, and some are brand-new and have no particular reason to trust the party. And when you do try something different, like a high-stakes stealth mission in the middle of your otherwise kick-in-the-door campaign, it’s a refreshing change of pace that gives the characters some room to try new tricks.
This is where you can a lot of utility out of things like Masks and Eureka. You can largely open to a random page and get something that probably isn’t what you were expecting but is close enough to a good idea.
- Invest in your own continuity. Nobody knows the world like the DM (unless the world is based on a world somebody else wrote, like a published campaign setting, in which case “your own continuity” is a somewhat loose definition). The DM loves the world enough that subjecting it to players is a small price to pay for sharing it with them. As such, he or she is the setting’s greatest activist, and there’s no better way to express that than leveraging it in ways your players don’t expect.
I love continuity porn. (If you print out this post and show it to my mother, please do not omit “continuity”). I love seeing old characters come back a little stronger and wiser, using forgotten items in new ways, answering lingering questions as part of the main narrative, and generally treating the world like a thing that exists rather than a thing that presents short-term stimuli to the players and discards them thereafter. I get excited thinking about how I’m going to pull something from the beginning of the campaign into now and use it to make things more detailed or impressive, and I especially love it when players recognize what I’m doing and get into it. (Wow, after re-reading that paragraph, definitely do not omit “continuity”.)
That said, you can go too far. Not every person, place, thing, or action needs to be significant. If the passing wheel merchant was actually the criminal overlord all along and the only clue was that they both said “Hey, how are ya?” in greeting, you’re probably not adding to the players’ experience or yours as much as you think you are. Save it for the things that really deserve it, foreshadow them when you can, and watch as your loose association of nouns becomes a story worth telling.
When you do bring up something old or subtle enough there’s a good chance your players won’t recognize it. That’s fine. Remember, you may have turned the grand duke’s nephew’s subplot over and over in your head for weeks, but the players only heard one offhand reference to him during dinner, and even then half the party wasn’t present. You generally can’t expect they’ll have the same knowledge of your world as you do and occasionally they’ll even surprise you by remembering something you forgot. It’s your call whether to remind them, let them roll to remember (a straight Int check works, but account for the fact that there are few skills for simple memory), or bask in their ignorance and only later recount your foreshadowing during the big reveal. Just don’t rely too much on that last one.
- Use characters and monsters you like running. When you’re going to have a monster-of-the week villain or a one-and-done NPC, you can make them anything that fits your needs. But when you’re talking about a campaign villain or a long-term ally, it’s important they they’re as fun for you as they are for the players, preferably top to bottom. Give the character a class you like playing, so when they get involved you enjoy using their powers and abilities. Give them an accent or a verbal idiosyncrasy (extraneous pluralization, overuse of the phrase “I know, right?”, refers to everybody by occupation rather than name, etc.) so you and the players know when the character is speaking. Find ways to get them involved (though not too much, of course) so they become a regular part of the campaign.
This extends to any iconic fights. When you’re having fun with a monster it will show, so design monsters you like playing. Give them abilities that stop or cancel the player abilities you can’t stand and play up things you want to see more. Use the environment, the storyline, and the players’ personalities in interesting ways. Not every fight needs to be a custom-built, off-the-wall, everything-means-something encounter, but when you’re at the end of an arc or in an important location or just need a pick-me-up there’s not much better at that than a fight that gets everybody involved in a fun and interesting way.
If you’re using something out of the box, make sure it’s not something you hate. One of the problems and benefits of long-running campaigns is that you tend to see the same monsters, allies, and bad guys over and over again, because that’s what the campaign is about. So if you don’t like running spellcasters, maybe the devil lord shouldn’t have a cadre of liches. But if you do like minotaurs, put them in a prominent place so they come up often. Use different types, like a barbarian here or an aristocrat there. Explore their society. Break out those minis you’ve always wanted to use but could never justify. Take advantage of the fact that your campaign has themes and make them something you want to use.
- Have good players. This one’s a bit of a cheat, because it’s not an ongoing design choice you make regularly over the course of a long campaign, but it’s still the most important point on this list. If you’re going to be running a game for the same group for a year or two, don’t invite people to merely tolerate. Invite people you like. You’re all ideally going to be stuck together for the life of the campaign, and you don’t want to get three months in and realize you have to scrap a bunch of your long-term plans and character arcs because you can’t be in the same room as one of your players (or two players can’t be in the same room as each other, etc.)
The thing about having good players is that if you ask their opinion they’ll give it to you. Tabletop gaming is a back-and-forth hobby, and good DMing involves getting feedback from players on what’s working, what’s not, and what they want to see going forward. The nice thing about this in a long campaign is that different people find different things interesting in different amounts. Even if you’re loving your minotaur city, the players may not be, and that forces you to try something new. You’re gaining and losing interest with the speed of four or five or six people rather than one, and that can help you break out of a rut you didn’t even know you were in.
Again, this is all good advice for a short campaign too. But it’s doubly important when you’re going to be in the same world running the same general plot for a while, especially if you’re like me and you need occasional breaks from a given activity to keep your mind going strong.