roleplaying games

Long-runners

In writing a future post for Cannibal Halfling on campaigns, I find myself once again stepping back and seeing if I can take my own advice. And once again, I find myself able to use what I’ve written in a positive way.

The post hits next week, but in general I focus on three things: length, continuity, and story. Story I’ve talked about at length here, and I know my preferences: I like my story reactive, and I prefer to both give players narrative control and have them desire some degree of narrative control. Continuity is something with a lot of range, but my preferences lean toward a relatively high amount of continuity with various structures and differing story beats.

Length…oh man, length. It has been my desire for a long time to run a long, character-focused campaign with enough runway to really let players grow into their characters. I’ve wanted room to tell epic stories, and let characters do things simply not possible in shorter games without a lot of deliberate focus. Watching some selections from Critical Role, now at 78 (!) sessions, has further reinforced to me that long arcs like this are things that I want.

My online group typically runs games that span 12-18 months and 15-20 sessions. I know the reasoning for this, and it’s a good length to work with both a) our roster of people who want to GM and b) our natural tendency towards ADD and wanting to explore multiple genres. It’s also a length that, in many cases, is infuriating. For one thing, many more story-focused game designers (noted by Luke Crane and Vincent Baker in Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World, respectively) have identified the amount of time it takes for both players and the GM to really identify with the characters as about 12 sessions. A 15 session game is just long enough to get to this point…and then finish. For another thing, the year-long framework has, combined with group events and other GMs waiting in line, put pressure on GMs to end their campaigns. This tends to further exacerbate some of these issues.

To be fair, our current roster of GMs are relaxing their approaches to our previous time constraints. This is a good thing, as ultimately as a player I have some good characters and a lot of room to get into them. It’s frustrating that it’s happening while I wait to GM, but that’s part of working within a group. We are blessed to have so many people want to run games, even if it inconveniences me sometimes.

What it does give me, though, is the opportunity to figure out what would encourage my players to stick with characters longer and play a longer game. Part of this would be structural, based on system and story, but part of it is much more focused on my techniques as a GM.

Thinking back over the last ten years or so, one thing I’ve been slowly improving on is pacing. Higher-powered games are difficult to pace, and as characters acquire new abilities and equipment it becomes harder still. The mechanics of continually finding challenging encounters eventually lead straight up the stairs to the higher-level villains you didn’t want the PCs to fight until much later. Related to that is writing…the more world-building and secondary session writing you do, the less likely you’re going to burn through a main plot and end up at the final boss in eight sessions, shrugging your shoulders.

PbtA systems give me a chance to remedy this, as writing is supposed to be much more reactive. Thinking to my future campaign of The Sprawl, in particular, elements like Threats and the Corporation Clocks give a much better idea of how much trouble the PCs are in and to what degree you should ramp things up. The big thing, though, is trying not to have a story. Building one session at a time helps things happen more organically, so you can build up a base of events and experiences before trying  to push anything in one direction.

So in running The Sprawl, I hope that I can establish a base for a long-running campaign and that my players can put some characters on the table that they really have a chance to grow into. That said, I also worry a little bit about personal boredom. I ended my Interface Zero campaign because I didn’t have anywhere else I wanted to take the campaign. This was in part due to boredom, but also due to a lot of characters not giving me much to work with, and those who did taking the plot in a million different directions. I can’t say for certain that I’ll avoid this in another cyberpunk game, but I’m a little more aware of what happened and think I can see some signposts that will help me avoid it.

Beyond the online group, I’m still trying to get things off the ground in-person. Part of this is group dynamics (mostly having to do with attendance and that whole having a life thing) and part of it is play-style. In the current iteration of the group, I haven’t had much success with PbtA…my players are used to more traditional games where the GM has the answers to setting questions. That’s perfectly fine, but it does mean I have to adjust my expectations and change my planning and writing style a bit. Two of my players have started to create characters for Victoriana, which should definitely be interesting.

In the end, I still don’t have the outlet I’m looking for for Burning Wheel or my crazy post-apocalyptic game. With regards to the latter, I’ve pretty much settled on writing it in Fate, hoping that the system will still shine when everything is more tamped down and gritty. Still, that writing has to be done, and finding time to write more than blog posts has been tough (my focus has been off for the last week or two). Even when I get my wits about me again, I’m still likely to go back to Paradox before writing this Fate hack.

Oh well. More game ideas than time for games, it’s an eternal problem.

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