D&D grung monsters

The Long and Short of an RPG Campaign

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Tabletop roleplaying games, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, are experiencing a resurgence in popularity due to many factors: live streamed content, ease of access, online resources, YouTube channels devoted to helping Game Masters new and old hone their skills and get groups together. But with more people joining the fray, there’s also a sizable portion of groups that stay together for a few months and then fall apart. We live in a modern, global world with lots of outside factors that constantly vie for our attention.

The RPG campaign and you

And sometimes, we have to choose between tabletop RPG and those outside factors. Sometimes those factors are unavoidable, like transitioning from high school to college and not being able to sustain a game across hundreds of miles of separation from our group. Even with online resources to run a game, it’s tough to get schedules to line up and there’s always something more magical about being at a table with people across from you and actual dice clattering across the mess of papers, pencils, and maps.

Or changing jobs and having to adjust to a new environment with new people. Or even mental health issues that require us to step away from the table so that we can take care of ourselves.

Sometimes the group dynamic just dissipates and what we thought was a good group turns to vapor. Sometimes we burn ourselves out on a tabletop RPG and feel exhausted at the mere thought of running a game or playing in one.

Critical Role RPG campaign
Is your RPG group ready for this level of commitment? [Art by Ariana Orner]
And on the glorious occasion that we finish a campaign, we might find ourselves months or years later wondering what to do or who to play with now.

So the ultimate question becomes: how long should a campaign be? How much time should we invest in the hobby? How many of those outside factors should we take into consideration when we decide to get together and game with a group of people?

This article probes those questions in greater detail. Though, as a disclaimer, I believe there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. Everyone is entitled to step away from the table if they find themselves between a rock and a hard place when life rears its ugly head and demands that RPGs take a backseat. There are passionate tabletop gamers out there, myself included, who view it as an integral part of their lives and overall well being.

If I’ve got a group that I’m running a game for. I hurl myself headlong into the campaign and invest a lot of my time to ensure that the game fits their perceptions and interests well enough to last. But there are plenty of people who view the hobby as just that: a hobby. Something to dump a few hours into when it interests them, but something over which most of life takes precedence. And there are still others who love RPGs, but can’t commit to a gigantic, sprawling campaign with a set group of people that lasts for years on end.

The point is that all of these perspectives are valid. However people find their enjoyment of tabletop RPGs is personal. And what works for you may not work for someone else.

For convenience, we’ll consider two cases and the pros and cons of each: short campaigns (lasting anywhere from a month or two to 6-10 months) and long campaigns (lasting anywhere from a year to multiple years).

Short campaigns

Pros

The first upside is that a short campaign allows the group to experiment with systems to see which ones best fit their playstyle. D&D isn’t for everyone, despite attempts from Wizards of the Coast to market 5E as a universally accessible and enjoyable system. Perhaps the group starts on 5E D&D, flounders for a bit, moves on to Pathfinder, flounders some more, and eventually decides that Blades in the Dark is the system for them. The advantage of a short campaign is that the group doesn’t have to go into the campaign with the mindset that they’re chained to the system that the GM suggested at the start.

D&D grung monsters
An ancient ziggurat stands in the foreboding jungle where the grung quest to retrieve their stolen eggs. Exploring it might be the entire campaign!

For GMs who pale at the thought of intricate worldbuilding or intense preparation, short campaigns can be a relief. There’s not as much pressure to develop a world completely or prepare a massive, master plot that underpins the whole narrative at the table. Short campaigns provide a creative outlet without the added stress of having rigid continuity or overdeveloped characters because, frankly, those things don’t matter as much in a shorter campaign. They can help, for sure, but they don’t have to be the focus. The focus can be creating interesting one-of encounters or small, but compelling, adventures. In a more microscopic view of the adventuring world, be it fantasy or science fiction or modern settings, short campaigns are excellent vehicles for bite-sized stories.

The last upside I’ll mention about short campaigns is that they present an opportunity to get to know people outside the context of work, or school, or any other commitment in life that requires social interaction. If you get a group of buddies from work together to roll some dice for a few months, with the assumption that you’ll stop playing or that there’s no obligation to continue playing after the campaign ends, you can still forge relationships that you can then take back with you and continue to develop in those other contexts.

Cons

One major downside to short campaigns is tied to the continuity aspect. It’s hard to create a compelling narrative and induce player buy-in if the overarching assumption is that the campaign is going to end within a handful of sessions. In my experience, short campaigns often devolve into the player characters murdering their way through the world because it feels one dimensional and there’s no immersion, no reason to be invested.

Another downside occurs when a campaign becomes a short one without any warning. The group has a falling out. The sessions start to get sparser and sparser with multiple people unable to attend, week after week. A player drops out because they’ve decided it’s not for them. These things happen. And it can be taxing on players and GMs who have to deal with a game disintegrating. Was it me? Was there something I could have done better to keep the group together? Why is no one showing up? All valid questions and all in response to a sudden shortening of the campaign.

Long campaigns

Pros

The first upside to a long campaign is the relationships that are formed at the table, both between people and in the imagined world. A long campaign gives the opportunity to forge lasting bonds with people you’ve solved puzzles with, fought epic combats with, and told sweeping stories with. Some of my fondest memories are at the gaming table from long campaigns, as I’m sure is true for many people who play tabletop RPGs. The amount of time required and the emotional and creative investment makes for amazing experiences if the long campaign is in the cards for everyone at the table.

Another upside to a long campaign is immersion and stor-telling. It’s the opposite of the situation for short campaigns. With the length of a campaign comes the potential for rich narrative, character development, and a more fleshed out setting that feels alive and vibrant. Because of the assumption that the game will take more time, there’s the opportunity to use that time to create a game that resonates and hums with life, a welcome solace for players and the GM to tell a story together inside.

Cons

The biggest drawback to a long campaign is commitment. Tabletop RPGs take time, both behind the screen and around the table. Dedicating a large portion of time on a weekly basis, or whatever your group decides is the best schedule, is difficult. And if the group has a hard time doing so, then the game suffers. People start to forget what their characters were doing, what their plans were for the game, and other essential elements to maintaining continuity. Now, good notetaking can alleviate this to some degree, but it remains a problem even for the most dedicated of scribes.

Another downside is burnout. Sometimes players lose interest. Sometimes GMs have trouble coming up with new content. Regardless of the way that burnout manifests in a long campaign, it’s not great. And it’s hard to deal with. It can be disappointing and it can negatively affect the group dynamic. If even one person isn’t having fun, or seems exhausted by the commitment to the game, that lack of enjoyment is contagious. A solution here is to have rotating GMs running different games to give the poor solo GM a break every now and then. But that might not always work if the other players aren’t comfortable stepping behind the screen and running a game.

Concluding remarks

There are benefits and drawbacks to running tabletop games in short or long formats. But to be frank, the drawbacks shouldn’t dissuade people who are tentative to try or to continue from doing so. The more people that enter the hobby, the greater the likelihood that they’ll hit their stride and see the beauty in it as so many of us do. Regardless of the type of campaign you decide to be a part of, if you’re having fun and telling great stories, long or short, you’ve succeeded. Wise words from Marthe Troly-Curtin: “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time at all.”

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Follow Austin Rodgers:
Graduate student in pure math by day, avid tabletop gamer by night. Austin is a lifelong gamer who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction, and musing about all things tabletop roleplaying, from classic hidden gems to modern powerhouses like 5e D&D.

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