26 August 2017

One-shot, Short Term, Long Term: Campaign Length

I find myself rereading some of my Order of the Stick books again. Because, well, it's such a great story. There are five volumes of printed comics, plus two prequel books and a bonus book of strips that ran in the ill-fated Dragon Magazine and other assorted sundries. In addition, there are (at the time of this writing) 147 online strips that haven't yet been collected into printed volumes. Once it gets to the end of the current story arc, that will be volume 6. I predict there will likely by 7 total volumes, with a small chance that the total may end up at 8.

In Volume 3 of the printed books (War and XPs), author Rich Burlew wrote in his prologue that he used Babylon 5 as a model for how to write an epic-length story. He mentions the way that little bits of at-the-time seemingly irrelevant details that turned out to be super important bits of foreshadowing in the series' final episode. He refers to that show extensively as a guide for how to map out a long-term story.

On the other end of the spectrum, I will be running a one-shot tabletop RPG tomorrow. I expect it to last a few hours. In those handfuls of hourglass sand, there will be a complete story, with all the necessary elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
Which brings to mind the three basic types of roleplaying game:

  • The one-shot game. This game lasts for a single session. The entire story is contained in that one couple-hours block of time.
  • The short-term game. This game lasts for a single story which spans several sessions. It might be as few as two sessions, or it might be thirty or more over the course of a year. But in that span of multiple sessions, a single story is told. There may be plots and subplots, but the main story is introduced in the first session, and all subsequent sessions continue on that same story arc until the plot is resolved in the last session.
  • The long-term game. This game encompasses several stories. Even if the stories are loosely-connected dungeon crawls, or is a completely episodic series of one-shots, the same characters start with one story, and then when that story ends, they move on to another. The stories may have no connection to one another, or they may be part of an overarching meta-plot.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each type. For example, in a one-shot, you can get a complete game in without having to worry about it remaining unresolved. No fretting about if your gaming group will fall apart before the story is finished! Especially if you're doing a light-hearted scenario or playing with strangers at a convention or a similar setting! 

The downside to the one-shot is that it can often be a lot of work for a very small amount of payoff. The preparation I've done for tomorrow's one-shot is pretty sizeable, and it's all going to be done and finished after a few hours. 

The short-term game, on the other hand, lets you get in some meatier stories. You don't have to avoid planting seeds of foreshadowing; you can drop hints for upcoming encounters and let the players wonder what's going to be coming as a result! In the 'Fae Team' game I ran for Changeling last year, for example, I had one of the PCs encounter a lot of imagery of angels over the course of a number of game sessions, as a way of foreshadowing the winged villain I planned for them to face several sessions down the road.

Additionally, with a short-term game, you don't usually have to worry about attrition. Life can be pretty hectic, and players may have to drop out of the group. By running a single storyline, you can increase the chances of wrapping everything up before anyone has to leave.

The unfortunate thing about short-term games is that it can often feel like, just as you're getting really invested in your character, the game ends, and you retire that character. Like the story is finishing right when you're growing to really enjoy the character growth and development. Furthermore, playing only in short-term games means that you're always playing characters who are starting level, or only slightly above it, unless the GM starts you out at a higher level (OK guys, we're all going to start with Level 10 characters!).

Contrast this with the long-term game, where you don't stop when a story ends. You can get deeply involved with your character. You have a million stories you can fondly tell of the exploits in which that character has engaged. The character can grow to epic levels of power (how many of us have had, or know someone who has had, cause to brag about their 96th level fighter/mage?). And the stories themselves can be truly epic! Events from one storyline might have a significant effect on later stories! Long-term games allow you to have Odyssey-level epics!

Of course, the longer a game goes on, the greater the risk that the group will fall apart. The one time I tried to run a long-term campaign, that's exactly what happened. I assembled a group of gamers who were interested in a long-term game, and I told them at the beginning, before we even began creating characters, that I planned for this game to go until we all got sick of it, possibly years down the road.

The first story was based on the description a friend had given me of the experience of going to Wal-Mart at 3 in the morning. She said that she felt a constant trepidation, because the fluorescent lighting made the already-wan faces of other people in the store seem like zombies, and she had a feeling that David Lo-Pan was going to jump out and kidnap her into his secret hideout in the basement at any moment.

For the second story, I sent the players to China, where one of the PCs lived, so that he could wrap up his affairs there before moving to America permanently. There, they were caught in an intrigue that they had to solve before completing their mission.

By this point, the group had started talking about their deep and abiding loyalty to one another, so I made the third story one that focussed on each PC being tempted by someone that they knew into abandoning the group. 

The fourth story was about the love interest of one of the PCs, who had travelled to Ireland and been abducted by a group of evil changeling. The PCs had to fly to Ireland to rescue him.

That was when the group fell apart. One of the players came to me and said that she was getting tired of playing, and that she hadn't expected it to last that long. Despite the fact that I had stated my intent at the very beginning. And so we never finished the fourth story. 

I found that very disappointing, because I too had grown invested in the characters, and was looking forward to seeing how they developed, both individually and as a group. I was even looking forward to the end of story four, seeing how they found and rescued the NPC and defeated the evil changelings.

Part of me still wishes I could get a long-term game group together. I'd love to be involved in a game that allows players to brag afterwards, 'Then there was the one time, when I'd finally learned level five in both Chicanery and Legerdemain...' but given my circle of friends, that doesn't seem likely.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking about today. Something to think about for you as well, now, yes? Whichever type of game you choose, I hope you have fun out there playing and telling stories. Remember as always to 

Game on!

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