World Building 101: How Long Should Your Campaign Be?

Most long-time RPG players have heard stories of long-running campaigns that last for years or more, with the characters growing from first-level scrubs to godlike proportions, or even passing on their powers to their heirs and continuing to adventure for generations in the same world. It is, however, not all that common to find a game that lasts that long, for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes groups don’t mesh well, and the game breaks up due to conflict. Sometimes, schedules shift and players become unavailable during the regular sessions. Sometimes, something comes up in life—someone moving or passing away—that puts a damper on continuing the game for whatever reason. Players may lose interest in the campaign, or may never have connected with it in the first place. The DM may decide that the game just isn’t working, or may realize there’s something else they would rather run instead. Sometimes, the campaign was always intended to be brief.

The assumption when you set out to create a campaign should only rarely be that you will continue the game indefinitely. Any of the reasons above, and many more, could contribute to the premature cessation of your game, and it can be frustrating for your players and you both if you never finish a campaign, or, if you’re lucky enough to avoid any external reasons to stop playing, all of your games just peter out and lose steam due to DM burnout or running out of useful ideas in the campaign’s theme.

Instead, you might want to actually plan a campaign to run for a set number of adventures or a level range that is ideal. A one-shot adventure can be great fun, as can a series of one-shots with no continuity required. Something a little longer can work as well—a series of three to five connected adventures, for example, or a story arc that takes your characters from level 5 to level 15, or spans the epic tier of play. Discuss with your players what you have in mind, and what they’d like to see.

One shots can give the most freedom to play around a non-fixed schedule, or a rotating-door roster of player characters. Without the need for continuous storylines or ongoing long-term threats, you can create brief adventures or try out unusual concepts that might not be sustainable over a longer campaign. One shots don’t necessarily rule out character advancement, either, since you could have your players running the same characters from session to session, taking part in episodic stories. With the potential of players deciding to bring a different character each adventure, there can be plenty of chances for inter-party roleplaying, since, unlike with a longer-term campaign, the party is significantly less likely to include the same five characters every time, and new personalities can interact in interesting ways.

Mini-Series take many of the best features of one shot adventures and add to them some of the features of longer running campaigns. You can include an epic storyline that crosses several adventures, recurring villains and NPCs, and a sense of scale that isn’t possible in a one shot. These work best with a fixed party roster for the duration, and can last for a few weeks to a few months. It can be rewarding to mix a mini-series in with episodic one shot adventures from time to time if you have a group who are able to set aside the time to do so once in awhile, but can’t always guarantee attendance.

Level Arc campaigns can run for 10 or more levels, at whatever power level you choose. They’re longer by far than either one shots or mini-series, and take more commitment and time to reach fruition. Storylines can be much more in-depth and include more player character background and story hooks as well. These kinds of campaigns can be ideal if you want to try a high-level story but don’t have time or interest in running a full blown campaign to bring the characters from first level to wherever you need them for your game to get going. They don’t mix as well with one shot or mini-series games, but there’s room to run a few consecutive arcs with different themes in the same campaign setting—you might run a level 1-10 arc that concludes the story neatly, then with a new mix of player characters (or the same one, if everyone’s still available) you could begin a new story for levels 11-20, and so on. The main difference here from a full-blown campaign is that each “arc” concludes and wraps up its own loose ends without continuing those story elements throughout. This kind of campaign generally takes at least a few months to get through.

Full-Blown campaigns are the big ones, where you begin at level one and just keep going until you’ve become fully realized top-level characters, with the same general storyline and party composition throughout. These are the most difficult campaigns to pull off successfully, because they require easily a year to play through, in general, and the DM needs to keep the storyline and advancement interesting and on track throughout. If you can pull it off it’s the kind of campaign that your friends will remember for the rest of their gaming careers, and look back on fondly or compare other campaigns to, hopefully as a high water mark.

Of course, there’s also the possibility of running any or all of these types of campaign consecutively in a single campaign setting. Just because you’ve concluded your full campaign doesn’t mean you can’t then run mini-series or one shots in the same world, exploring different areas or from an angle your players didn’t see the first time around. Put them on the other side of the great war they just experienced, or have them experience the seedy underbelly of the capitol city they founded when they became rulers with their last characters. Exploring your campaign setting through multiple campaigns can give your players a very definite sense of comfort in the world, a familiarity that you can share. No matter how long your individual campaigns run for, the world you create can continue on as long as you like.


Comments (8)

Michelle (May 13th, 2010)

When I hear about the old Gygax campaigns, etc., the thing I can’t figure out is this: they had these great, epic characters, but also a reputation for truly deadly dungeons. How the hell did Mordenkainen et al survive to become famous?

Chris (May 14th, 2010)

> How the hell did Mordenkainen et al survive to become famous?

I don’t know for sure, but my best guess is that Mordenkainen et al became famous _because_ they survived :-)

Mazetar (May 14th, 2010)

Same way as my players have survived the expeditions to castle greyhawk:

a bit of skill and a huge bunch of luck ;)

Tourq (May 14th, 2010)

I am so on the fence about campaign duration. If the game is good, but not great, I’m ready to move on after a month or two, otherwise, if it’s great, I don’t mind 6 months or more.

-Tourq

GeneD5 (May 16th, 2010)

I’ve run campaigns of varying duration. I’ve had numerous adventuring parties in my homebrew settings over the years, but only a few have made it past what used to be called “name level” (10) in D&D. On average, they last a year or two of real time with weekly or biweekly sessions.

Right now, I’ve encouraged fellow Game Masters to run one-shots between a D&D4e game that had started to break down after a year and a space opera campaign that I’m planning. Such breaks are helpful to me to get re-energized and explore new genres and rules systems, as well as to “cleanse the palate” of jaded or entrenched role-players.

Some of the people in my groups would no doubt prefer to get their characters to demigodhood, but my own comfort zone (with the exception of superhero games) is generally with lower-powered scenarios.

derek Schenk (October 1st, 2010)

iv’e run in a game to the point where my characters have become npcs because there to powerful and need to fight an entire clutch of dragons.

GimliTinsil (February 24th, 2012)

personally i like long campaigns adn such like i’m even running a level 100 campaign (going from level 1 to level 100, with story all the way through ;) ) i know most of u will go 0.o at it but it’s actually really fun (trust me lol)

Komoda (January 29th, 2013)

I have found that having 2 DMs that trade off (different games) each week is an awesome way to stave off burn out. It is wonderful to be able to play and not just DM. This really allows for the games to last a lot longer. And the players seem to like trying out two different characters as well.

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