How To Handle Long-Running And Epic RPG Campaigns: Ask the GM

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It’s the golden unicorn of gaming groups. A legend only heard about in dark corners at gaming stores. And the scheduling requirements should be an Olympic sport—the eternal gaming group.

I’ve been lucky enough to run my own home-brew setting for about 15 years now. Players come and go—and the story-line or game system we use shifts—but the world stays the same. I’ve also played in and watched Vampire: The Masquerade games go (and are still ongoing) since 1996. But we’ve all seen countless other games fall and crumble to the inevitable march of time. Where are the epic level characters? Why can’t we build kingdoms? What the hell happened at the end?

It’s gotten to the point where I ask storytellers who invite me, How long do you intend to run for?

On GM Tips with Satine Phoenix, she had another epic storyteller TJ Storm give his tips on running an eternal campaign. Get caught up below. Seriously. Do so. If nothing else so you can dream about playing in one of his campaigns and witness the fury of the Bull God.

If anything inspires you to go run a game… it’s that GM outro.

The System Makes The Game

I’m going to set forth a controversial opinion here: D&D sucks at eternal/long running campaigns. In fact, most level-based systems do. There are always stories of great long running epics and storytellers that have run them—but more often than not the game ends at level 11. Once players start unlocking powers that allow them to solve any situation in unforeseeable ways, storytellers start crumbling.

Level-based systems create epic adventures as you move upwards, but unfortunately, always hit a cap. Non-Linear Systems (like Savage Worlds or anything from Onyx Path) allow you to keep the game going for, well, infinity, but suffer from lack of world changing characters. Curious about Satine’s experience, I asked her this: Since you’ve run D&D at all tiers, what epic world-bending campaign would you run if you had a table?

“I haven’t run Epics. My specialties are one shots and mini series. My ALL time favorite setting is Eberron. Arcana Punk with Warforged and Changelings and nations run by intelligent monsters connected by Lightning rails and Airships run by elementals. This world is epic with an incredible backstory that breaths so the players can explore and change the path of the world. A magic world recovering from a great war that decimated a major city. There’s hope and pain and many places for characters to effect. As far as campaigns go, I’d make my own.”

I think it’s a compelling answer that highlights the point—worlds can be great, but the system needs to support it. Satine and I have both been gaming nearly the exact same amount of time. But she’s never had the chance to run an epic long-running chronicle. If you are really looking to play in a long-running game: You’ve either got to gate your level progress, switch to milestone XP, or try a system that is focused on a different aspect of character growth. The more consequences for actions, the more focus on social systems, and the more focus on kingdoms, the better. The Legend of the Five Rings RPG line did a great job of this.

But I like level based progression…

If you are dedicated to using a level-based system for that ten-year long game, plan on your characters becoming gods. Players rising to become gods is a great way to keep the world and campaigns turning. No matter what the system is. Even if you’ve created your own pantheon, or you have hijacked a real one, the core concept of godhood is a compelling fantasy to many.

But one aspect of this is bound to come up: players will inevitably need to kill another god. Just thinking about this idea is enough to spawn an entire campaign. Before you begin the campaign, visualize how killing a god would work. Is it even possible in your world? Maybe they need to be trapped? I build the god, and their journey, from the ground up, complete with a sheet (but you may want to use another metric besides hit points—like how many worshippers or shrines the god has). It’s like a mega-NPC on crack. If the players kill it early on or if they become allies, so be it! But whatever you do: Don’t cheat your players because you aren’t ready. To get some more feedback, I asked Satine:

If you were going to run a campaign and the players had to kill a god, what do you think is most important to avoid in a god-slaying encounter?

“I’d only throw a god at the players if I knew they could handle it. That’s a pretty intense thing to approach. I’d emphasize the effect it would have on the people around it first. Using the player’s psyche against them. If they still wanted to kill it I’d say don’t hold back. Give the God power, but also limitations. Perhaps they can’t kill it, but they could trap it or trick it. But it’s a God. They didn’t become a god because they were easy.”

There is always another way

Another form of eternal campaigns that I’ve used myself is to daisy chain short stories. Keep the world setting, but moving to a different part of the world after each story. I keep a journal for what’s going on in the rest of the world and put a lot of focus into calendars or timelines. It’s important that players feel significant impact between story-lines. It can’t be light or even passive in the background if you want to do this. The characters need to change the world. Factions need to rise in prominence or fall at their doing and cities should change hands. Also, have cameos of old characters, from time to time (or even make them prominent NPC’s).

Every third campaign or so, I would go back and let them play their older characters (leveled up some, of course) for another story. This linking-of-games together in a very meta way has a ton of advantages. You can play different systems, try different classes, and even shine a light on under utilized parts of the world. But this does mean you need to reward players in other ways besides XP. For me, I rely heavily on positions of power. When the city is under your command, you might need to hire some mercenaries to get things done rather than do it yourself.

What are some example non-XP based rewards do you like to fall back on Satine?

“Money! Money and Artifacts are great rewards. Status in the community. Access to greater services. Social Respect or fear. Land is also cool.“

I could write a never-ending article about long-running games and their pitfalls, and I’ll probably come back to this if I have the opportunity. Getting a chance to play in a long running game is inspiring to all players and GM’s, so I’d really like it if everyone could share some of their stories.

What long -running games have you played in or ran yourself? What is your year count up to? Share your stories in the comments below!

Image Credits: Geek & Sundry

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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