I don’t typically dislike my campaigns. There are a few that did not run the way I wanted, and many that ended too soon, either doing so abruptly, or petering out. In fact, all of my campaigns ended “too soon” in my opinion, though that may be why so many of them are remembered fondly. As for what makes an ideal length of a campaign, that may be a topic for another day.
Several of my campaigns are made of very fond memories for me as a game master, and they all share a few characteristics in common: they had memorable characters, both player and non-player, they caused the players to become invested in the outcome of the game, and, most importantly, they were fun. I argue that all three of those are important for a particularly long-running game. Though I’ve played games that were fun that may have been missing one or both of the other characteristics, I would still argue that for a game to last any extended period of time, all three are interdependent. I have three examples from my memory vault, and though I believe they all possessed every characteristic, each one will serve as an example of one.
Cyberpunk Boston, September/October 2004 – April 2005: Memorable Characters
Cyberpunk Boston was the last game I played with my high school group, and by far my favorite. Though that may have been because we mostly played D&D, or because of the noir atmosphere brought about by one of my players’ private investigator character, or one of many other reasons, I personally know what made it my favorite: Lars Blackpool.
Lars Blackpool was the first Cyberpunk 2020 character I ever rolled up, before I played a single session, before I even asked any of my gaming friends if they wanted to play. I rolled him up as if I was going to be playing him, and because of that, I played dirty, min/maxing and using all of the loopholes I had discovered in even my cursory dives into the three sourcebooks I had. Had I played Lars in a game GMed by someone else, he would have been a fun character. But it didn’t stop there. I had ideas about Lars’ personality, and using a combination of Cyberpunk’s “Lifepath” backstory generation and my own imagination, I wrote quite a bit on the guy. By the time I had the idea of using him in the campaign I was running (he came in about a third of the way in), he was a cynical wisecrack who was able to hide his trust issues and post-traumatic stress disorder well enough to be functional. So, he came in at first as a mild GMPC (I never said I was perfect) who helped out the players for a couple sessions, and then disappeared. He reappeared a little later…on the opposite side, against the players. They tried to track him down, and failed. Then he showed up again, contrite and willing to tell everything he knew. Then he disappeared again. The players tracked him down, and had him arrested. He was released on bail. And the encounters continued.
Though the brunt of the game was nearly six years ago at this point, I still remember long in-game conversations with myself playing Lars, and I still remember evoking strong emotional reactions out of my players multiple times through Lars’s actions. I saw the characters change as these encounters occurred, and the game where Lars was supposed to be a secondary character took a turn, driven by the motivations of the characters. The funny thing is, the last thing I planned for the game was the buildup of a second antagonist that would force the players to side with Lars again…I was literally giddy at the thought of the table talk that would occur when that option presented itself. Alas, the game ended before this could happen, equally due to an accidental near-TPK and some out-of-game issues that splintered the group. Nonetheless, Lars is still one of my favorite NPCS. I recently tried to resurrect the character with my new group, but the game fell victim to a play-by-post stall before I could really get into it.
Street Level, January 2006-August 2006: Investment
Street Level as a setting was mentioned previously in this blog, but the games were not touched on as much. This was the first game I ran with my college group, and for whatever reason, it’s stuck with us. It may have been the open book style of the setting that allowed each player to actually impact the world with no need to worry about existing metaplot, or it may have been a sense of possibility evoked by our first encounter with the supremely flexible GURPS. Either way, the game remains the gold standard I use to measure the depth of a long-term campaign.
The setting is not a particularly unique cyberpunk setting, but its “newness” for the group (which was used to D&D in terms of both a class-based character system and a fantasy setting) made for some very interesting character choices. We had the standards, a martial arts specialist, and a cybernetically modified mercenary, but also some weird ones, like a ten year old street urchin (who became the major face character late in the first campaign) and a paranoid zombie novelist (who saw his delusional fears come true with cyber-zombies, also late in the first campaign). It was a great mix, but what made it truly great was the depth to which the players impacted and became invested in the world. The martial artist character added a monastery and a style of martial arts based on computer hacking, which gave great flavor to the first part of the setting the characters saw. The cybernetic soldier provided me with a lot of material that helped me write Street Level Europe, as well as a terrifying (and hilarious) idea to run all of his cybernetic implants on grain alcohol. And one of the characters, an experimental AI, basically gave me over 50% of my plot. What’s important to note is that this interplay was bidirectional, and as a result, we all put quite a bit into the world. As a result, I have run two campaigns in the setting and attempted to run a third. Also, the cybernetic alcoholic mercenary, Serjan Goranovic, has showed up in three campaigns with our group, including one that did not take place in the Street Level setting.
Cyberpunk: Rise of Novio, August 2006- December 2006/January 2007: Fun
This game was nuts. Looking back on it, I can’t believe we crammed in as much as we did. Though I can’t vividly remember every detail, I can remember the characters.
Yung-Su was the most normal Cyberpunk character, a heavily armed and armored Korean mercenary/assassin whose exploits included killing a man in a bar with an explosive frisbee.
Bakunin was another heavy hitter type, who gained the most notoriety by strapping himself with explosives and daring people to shoot at him.
Don Giovanni was a helicopter pilot, and also a pirate.
Dirk Daulton was a corrupt cop who schmoozed with the Yakuza, dated the Yakuza boss’s daughter, and convinced another party member to kill the chief of police by not telling who it was that was being shot.
Lenz was a video blogger who saved all the politically sensitive footage he acquired throughout the campaign and linked it to a switch that would release it all upon his death. He then effectively ended the campaign by taunting a military vehicle with a chin-mounted minigun.
And finally, the namesake of the campaign was Novio de Tejada, an extremely attractive corporate manager who got the whole team into their mess in the first place. He was the puppetmaster, though this would come back to bite him. He died from a gunshot wound to the head, though, as his player said: “there was still an open casket funeral. He looked that good.”
The game was a fairly bog-standard corporate wheel/deal deception and intrigue type campaign, and the players just went nuts and took it where they wanted it to go. When the two intrigue sides clashed enough, a chain reaction occurred. Dirk shot Novio in the head, tried to flee by helicopter, and was promptly thrown to his death by Don Giovanni, whose loyalty had not been swayed by all the backstabbing. Then, the surviving characters went and fought a giant robot in an old Soviet Hind helicopter filled to its weight limit with C4. Yes, that’s how the game ended. All in all, the game’s believability went down the tubes really fast, but the players had a hell of a time up until the very last moment.
As I mentioned above, I believe all three of those games had elements of good characters, player investment, and plain fun. Looking back, I see that the presence of these elements was in most part the responsibility of the GM. Yes, I’ve been blessed with enthusiastic players in my previous groups, but in the end, the GM needs to be willing to do three things for a campaign to succeed. He needs to set the stage with believable and interesting characters, he needs to be willing to run his game reactively, and he needs to keep the pace up. Believable and interesting characters is a straightforward concept, though this does mean organizations as well as people. Running a game reactively is mostly about taking what the players do, and reflecting it in the world. If players see they’re changing things, then they’re more likely to be invested in the game, and probably having more fun too. Keeping the pace up is mostly just knowing when to send something the players’ way. Sometimes, there’s plenty in front of them to be chased down and solved, and then you don’t need any pushing. Other times, it’s not as clear, and something needs to be done, whether through a hint, or a random event. Though these elements can’t guarantee the longevity of a campaign, they can keep it enjoyable for your players, which is at least one part of keeping a game going.
Tomorrow I’ll expound on writing fiction from roleplaying games and why it’s difficult, and on Friday I’ll write about a few of my favorite campaigns as a player.