Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Long Term vs. Short Term Campaign Model in RPGs (or: why board games and card games thrive while RPGs remain a niche within a niche)

Board gamers and card gamers have it so easy: they show up, play a few hours, and when they are done it gets packed up and you don't think about it again --at all-- until you feel like playing again. And if you never feel like playing again? Well there's no great, personal commitment beyond the moment (and the initial cash to buy the game/cards) so hey, no big deal!

RPGs are not like this at all, of course. They demand almost as much time when you are not playing as when you are. To get the most out of an RPG you need to play it, a lot, and you need to spend a lot of time prepping for it, learning its nuances, and then teasing those out of the game, possibly over dozens of games.

I run in to this constant problem as a GM. How to apportion my time to gaming? There's a general feeling, at least partially perpetuated by my own style of gaming, that an RPG campaign needs to be Big and Long and other verbs such as protracted, extended, eternal, etc. RPGs demand a lot of time, and feel like you aren't getting your buck's worth unless you then dedicate much of your free time to them.

This is partially due to the game of choice for most sessions: D&D 5E and it's cohorts (from Pathfinder and Starfinder to pretty much every iteration of D&D, ever*), which tend to encourage long campaigns so you can get from level 1 to level 10, 15, or maybe even 20. These games ask of the player and GM that you stick with the characters for a long time, see them grow, develop, and expand in to the Big Damn Heroes from their roots as wanderlusted nothings. At best there are some variations of D&D such as 13th Age which contort the campaign into a more bite-sized option, with the best iteration being 13th Age's optional "1 level/1 session" campaign model in which you streak through ten levels of play over ten sessions of gaming. It feels rushed and artificial, but it also accomplishes something important: it provides "mechanical closure" as well as plot closure to a storyline in the campaign, by both giving the group ten levels to play through and encouraging the GM to pace the game to last those ten sessions of play.

Recently I hit the level cap in Tom Clancy's The Division, a computer game which lets you level your post-apocalyptic Division Agent through to level 30 in a story campaign, after which you are then unleashed on the world in a level-free environment that ironically is loaded with secondary leveling mechanics for different types of missions as well as your "gear score" which is a bit like the ultimate leveling system since there's always better gear to get. Some other games, such as Guild Wars 2, also do this: provide a structured leveling experience through a story/campaign mode, then at the end it explodes wide open in the so-called "endgame" content. The idea is that the story mode meets the traditional game qualifiers, but the endgame content is where the hardcore come to play, and the publisher and developer of the game tries to monetize the game for the hardcore to keep playing and paying.

In tabletop terms, I think it's interesting that we don't really see any game try to structure itself like this. Leveling up can be a long, drawn out process in many RPGs, and RPGs that look at the subject differently do so not by making the leveling process the "opening act" followed by a post-level-up endgame, but rather the alternatives eschew level mechanics entirely, or better yet focus on tighter, shorter campaign experiences with advancement rules there primarily as a minor extra perk. FATE Core for example is an excellent example of an extreme alternative to classic D&D leveling mechanics. You don't really need to level up at all in FATE, though it does provide rules for advancement, and in fact it seems that a great many FATE gamers are accustomed to short story structures in their gaming: advancement is incidental to the goal, which is a short campaign experience.

I've been running lots of Call of Cthulhu lately, and as a BRP system CoC does have some advancement mechanics (skill gains), but the net effect of skill gains is slow and over time; the real enjoyment comes from the prolonged experience of the campaign scenarios themselves. The fact that I've kept up a coherent campaign in Call of Cthulhu for close to eight months now shocks me, honestly....and it's thankfully because the story itself is so engaging. But this is in some ways the exception to the rule. I do feel that the fact that "mechanical advancement" is so nominal/secondary in CoC actually helps make the long campaign more interesting, because nothing that happens in the campaign feels like it needs to be there to promote artificial level advancement. The thematic core of the game opposes this style of play as relevant to the as a result, players don't need the feel of "mechanical closure" to appreciate the game itself.

All of this has been a lot of rambling discussion to get to my core problem with this model: I don't actually get to play the games and scenarios I want most of the time, because every time I start something it's essentially designed to accommodate the "long campaign model" of play and the level mechanics of the system usually encourage that it function this way, otherwise it feels like you're not really getting the most out of the system. This is in contrast to, ironically, the other long term campaign I have where leveling is not such an issue but the campaign itself is sufficiently rewarding that everyone is happy with it without the feeling that you're missing out if you don't play for dozens of sessions to level up.

Back in the old days, I designed some of my best campaigns around 10-12 session story arcs designed to run through a single semester when I was in college, with the idea that I never knew if I'd have the same players the following semester. A side effect of this was that most of the AD&D 2E games lasted for maybe 5-6 levels of play (we'd start with a specific level and everyone would level up every other session or so) but the campaign would have a very satisfying conclusion. Characters could continue on a future campaign, absolutely....but that would be a new story arc, lasting 10-12 games, with another satisfying conclusion. And so on and so forth.

These days, I kind of feel like what I need right now is the opportunity to play more games with less dedicated time and effort to get payoff. I'd like to try a campaign of Symbaroum for 3-5 games, just to see how it is. I'd like to run some scenarios for Conan RPG without feeling like I have to commit for six months or more to get it done. I'd like to run another ten-session arc in 13th Age down the road, or take that model and apply it to D&D 5E. Just to see how that feels. I'm kind of doing that in my current D&D game right far everyone has done enough to gain a level per session, but admittedly they all started at level 1 and the first 2-3 levels in D&D go by quickly if you're busy.

The downside of this model is that some of the really interesting emergent gameplay and RP that pops out after very long campaign sessions might not come to pass. But then, the opposite also applies: the sort of intensity and focus a tighter scenario or campaign run with a deliberate aim toward brevity can lead to sessions where players will behave very differently than if they think they're in for the long haul.

I'll wrap my planned 10-game D&D run and see how it goes, then maybe propose some shorter, more focused games later this year. We'll see how (or if) that goes over.....for me, I'm just hoping that I can find that particular beat and rhythm I need to really enjoy the gaming. I'm getting it in spades right now with CoC on Saturday, now if I can only find that extra something to make Wednesday great as well....maybe my instincts at the start of 2018 are right, and I really do need to give D&D a break for a while, focus on other games and/or genres.

*OSR and old school games are different, though. There's a fundamental shift in how an RPG feels when played out over time when you adapt old school sensibilities which actually makes long-term play more comfortable and interesting (and also simultaneously making you feel like you get more out of each session)....but more on that in a future column!


  1. I have trouble running long campaigns. I and my players tend to like a bit of variety in genre so we end up with a lot of two to three game arcs before switching to other times/genres. We enjoy it so it has not been an issue.