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The Short Campaign Manifesto

Written by Expy - Published on September 20, 2009

Why Most RPG Campaigns Don’t Last For More Than A Few Sessions

Ask game masters how many of their campaigns last for more than a few sessions. My experience is that they’ll tell you that one out of three or four of their campaigns really gets off the ground and becomes the epic story we all want to play in.

What makes it so difficult to get together with friends and tell a great story?

Most of the time, we are telling the wrong story in the wrong language. Storytelling has been around for ages. This is really what roleplaying games are about – we collaborate with our friends to create and tell a great story. There are a millions of books, novels, short stories – examples of what good (and bad) stories are like. There are hundreds of different game systems. Yet we still only manage one great campaign out of every few tries.

One of the main reasons campaigns lose steam is scheduling. It can be hard to get 4-6 players in one place at the same time.

Another reason campaigns wither and die sometimes lies with the story itself – good game masters run fast-paced games that end with a heart-wrenching clifhanger. And yet even the best game masters plan campaigns that don’t quite pan out.


Tell a shorter story.

Nobody is forcing you to run an epic tale. And nobody is forcing your players to ditch their characters once a story is over. Heck, nobody is asking you to run a 4 or 5 hour session. Why can’t we  tell a great story in 2-3 hours? We can! Some of the most popular fiction of all times is built on the series of short stories model (most tv shows, Sherlock Holmes)

That brings up a new problem. The mechanics of the most popular games don’t allow us to run that kind of game – running a single combat encounter can take 2 hours.

I say: ditch the rules.

Why can’t you ignore the rules when you’re short on time? You can! And that’s coming from a guy who would be stoked to run a 6 hour long D&D combat encounter as a game.

Here’s the problem with most rulesets: they were written to help you run an epic odyssey. Newsbreak – few people can get together every 2 weeks for a year and actually play out that odyssey.  We end up creating and playing mechanically complex characters and using complete, but somewhat cumbersome mechanics. Our goal is to tell a great story, not necessarily tell a great epic trilogy-worthy tale.

Using a 250+ page book to run a game other than a long-winded, action packed epic, is like building the foundations for a skyscraper, then pitching a tent. You don’t need that big of a foundation – you’re wasting your valuable time.

I’m not suggesting you stop trying to run regular games that last for months and years. It will always be my favorite type of game. I’m saying that they will only work out 25% of the time or so, no matter how great a game master you are.

How often can we realistically tell an epic tale? Not often.

Yet most game systems are tools to run that specific kind of campaign.

So, I was saying: Tell shorter stories. Run one-shot sessions. If your players are into character development, you can run multiple one-shot sessions with the same characters.

Change the way you think about roleplaying games. Your goal isn’t to run a campaign. Your goal is to tell a great story.

Sometimes the long campaign, broken down into adventures and quests is the best way to go. Most of the time, you should reverse the thinking. Run short quests with a beginning, middle, and end. Wrap up a complete story in a few hours. If multiple games, multiple stories add up and become a campaign, great!

Change your assumptions about getting people together

Also change your assumptions about getting people together. You don’t need to get all your friends together for 5 hours to play roleplaying games. 2 hours is enough. 3 hours is great.

To help you tell great stories, you also have tons of free websites and blogs written by passionate gamers – Gnome Stew, Critical Hits, Chatty DM, Roleplaying Tips, Dungeon Mastering, Stupid Ranger. And I’m only scratching the surface. Become a part of the discussion on playing and running better games. Game mastering is an art as much of a science and no one should be expected to be good all the time. But you can get better at it constantly. Although it might seem daunting at first, it’s not that hard – it just takes a passion, effort, and time.

What are game companies doing for me?

I have dozens of game companies that cater to my need for a long epic campaign. What about my need to run short, fun, games? When the time to start or play in a long campaign isn’t right, what do I do?

  1. I want a game company that lets me learn a system in 30 minutes or less. Not get the gist of the rules – I want to assimilate a whole system in half an hour.
  2. I want adventures that I can read and prepare in 30 minutes or less.
  3. I want a character creation process that won’t require a whole game session.
  4. I want character creation to be a group activity.
  5. I want character creation to be fun, to be part of the game, not a prerequisite to actual play.
  6. I want games, scenarios, and synopses that help me tell a better story.
  7. I want a game company that lets me ask questions directly to the author (and I want an answer within a reasonable delay)
  8. I want the game designers to tell me what they were thinking of, what they were trying to achieve when they created the game.
  9. I want all of this to be part of every product I purchase – I do not want to pay extra for support and insight into a game I purchased.
  10. I want a phone number I can call for support (at least to leave a message) and I expect to be treated like a live human being, like a worthy customer.
  11. I want online tools or software to perform any repetitive task required by the game.
  12. I want these tools to be part of the product I purchase. I do not want to pay extra for them.
  13. I want my feedback to be heard and acted upon.
  14. I want a free copy of a game I purchased if it’s updated (it can be done with PDF books)
  15. I want to be part of a community of players that play the same game I do and share material to enhance the game.

What do you want your games to be like? What do you expect from your favorite game publishing company?

Dungeon Mastering is publishing its first game so I’ll have a chance to put my money where my mouth is! The game is called Zombie Murder Mystery – check it out »

Zombie Murder Mystery

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Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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17 Responses to “The Short Campaign Manifesto”
  1. ElizaW says:

    That’s a really good idea, planning short. I think I’d be a much better DM if I made myself stop thinking BIG.

  2. Jux says:

    I really hate when online communities ask money for their services. Curse them!

  3. LordVreeg says:

    Great list of things we might need from RPG companies. I especially thing free updates within a certain time frame would be brilliant, and show some good faith.
    Too bad I have an absolutely TERMINAL case of Long Campaign-itis. I think the fact you wrote about that was the most interesting thing you touched on!

  4. Yax says:

    @Jux: Maybe you should focus on the 600 articles and 8,000 comments that this community is providing for free?

  5. Yax says:

    @ElizaW: I think it’s a great quality to think big. What’s difficult is to decide when it’s counter-productive to work on a big campaign.

  6. I just want to second everything said above. I have long held that games should be “episodic” rather than “epic”. Connecting the adventures is good, but try to give each story arc a satisfying ending just in case that is the last one you play.

    I remember an interview with Joss Whedon where he was asked why he never did cliffhangers on Buffy:TVS. His response was that he never knew if there was going to be another season.

  7. Juhan says:

    This comment is off-topic.

    @Yax: Well the last article was miserable rip-off. If I knew that the next 5 minutes I am going to read a long-long advertisement, I would have avoided it like a plague.

    It is not that I don’t appreciate the free stuff you have provided – on the contrary, I really enjoy that. But I am afraid, that if this community project is moving towards the idea of a profitable business plan, it will cease to exist.

    Community projects work in different way. It allows/encourage users to participate. There are no licence issues and it does not seek profit. When I visit this page, I want to feel like I am a gamer among fellow gamers, not a customer.

    I understand projects like that need financial support, because people are actually doing lot of work + the maintenance costs. For that there should be special section for that – shop. But if I read something like “to press next pay $” and not only you get bla bla, but you can put it under your bed! That is called aggressive marketing and I feel like the whole thing is a big trick in the first place.

  8. Tiorn says:

    @Julian: I’d say you went a little over the top in expressing yourself, but know that you’re not alone with the disappointment that you feel.

  9. Pingwin says:

    The only thing I want from a game company is inspiration, stuff that makes my mind run wild with idea’s that would be cool to use. I dont need any interaction with whomever made it and I dont want to use a computer during my sessions.

    I also dont need advertisements poorly disguised as opinion pieces. If you want to promote your product please do so, but I’d still like to see a decent piece on how to do one-shots with the same level of intensity as the climax of a 2-3 month weekly campaign.

  10. Yax says:

    Hi guys,

    I’m sorry that I gave off that scammy vibe. I try to avoid it because it usually gets exactly the kind of reaction you had.

    Please understand that I stand behind everything I say. This blog has my name all over it and if you ever sent me an email you probably gto my personal phone number in the reply I sent you.

    I want to be transparent. And I choose to sell my own games. You must admit the site is friendlier than when I was relying on advertising and you had 4-5 spammy flashing banners on every page.

    So take the opinion as it is – it *is* my opinion. In fact it’s an opinion that I believe in enough to actually work on. I worked hard on this book and I implemented everything I want from a game company – the help desk, the toll-free number and all that.

    In the end you choose to see it any way you want – I know that I try my best every day to provide quality and value. I still believe this opinion piece was a good way to make a statement.


  11. Stormgaard says:

    Good summary of what a lot of DM’s and gamers – especially the time challenged ones – face on a regular basis. We’re not 20 years old and single anymore. We can’t spend 36 hours straight just playing D&D (not without getting divorced or fired anyway).

    I’d say the most obvious reaction to this particular problem is that you can eat an elephant if you cut it up into small enough pieces. In other words you CAN have epic, you just have to have it in more, smaller sessions. This is what has worked for me over the past 15 months. I run a 3-4 hour game (most) every Friday night at my house. We’ve never had that smorgasbord of gaming we’d like (6-8 hours of uninterrupted play), but the story is most definitely epic. Most of the original characters from June of ’08 are still part of the story, and they’re on track to potentially kill a God or two in the next couple of years.

    I might also argue that this episodic approach is generally more conducive to storytelling. Wax Banks @ ChattyDM essentially makes this argument in his brilliant post “For new GMs: Worldbuilding is storytelling: complication, complexity, micronarratives, and your precious little fantasy world-baby”


    It’s one thing to have this gigantic and amazing fantasy-world beforehand to present on a silver platter to your players, but it’s quite another (and oftentimes more practical) to build that epic world (and story) over time, building it block by block.

    In order to make this work however – and you touched on this a bit in “Change your assumptions about getting people together” – you have to have a group of people who are mature enough and flexible enough to accept the fact that a lot of times not EVERYONE is going to be able to show up – real life just doesn’t allow for that sort of luxury.

    Most of the time for us it’s not an issue, but on the rare occasion that it is we all put our heads together and figure out a way to patch up the storyline. All in all it’s had a negligible effect on the “Epic feel” of the game. We just roll with the punches and keep on playing.

  12. Dra8er says:

    Been playing this “shortened style” of game play for many, many years now, & IT WORKS. I approach my sessions like they were “comic books”. Short, sweet, fun. Every session is linked one way or another but doesn’t usually require you to have played the previous adventure nor will you have to play the next one in order to get that “sense of accomplishment!”

    True I do string some together, but that’s usually only when I know I can get the current group to commit to playing them.

    I believe this also fosters a better playing group, many times has a player wanted to play but they have missed a session or two and feel they missed it all and don’t return. Well with this approach they don’t feel guilty and IMO actually try harder to make more sessions.

    This all goes hand in hand with my other gaming staple, I usually let players have a stable (1,2,or 3)of characters. I usually base my games around an “Adventurers Guild” or variation thereof and allow players to craft a few unique characters. This allows them to always have a character handy for any particular adventure, or if they actually die (a HUGE frustration in 4th Ed. Can Characters Die?).

    Roll On…

  13. jeff szusz says:

    First things first: Games like that do exist. They’re called indie games, and you can buy them at indiepressrevolution.com or from the individual vendors.

    My favorites are anything by John Wick (Wilderness of Mirrors, Cat, Houses of the Blooded), Jared A. Sorensen (Lacuna, Inspectres, octane), Evil Hat Studios (Don’t Rest Your Head, Spirit of the Century), and others. My Life With Master also comes to mind, though I don’t remember the author.

    Secondly, every independent game designer uses his blog to plug his own stuff. I don’t see the problem. I would use my blog to plug a product I sold. You would use YOUR blog to plug your product too. I haven’t seen the offending post in question though, so I guess I’ll go read it to see what the hullabaloo is about.

  14. jeff szusz says:

    Oh and Paranoia and Kobolds Ate My Baby have been around forever, those are great “pickup” games.

  15. Maggie says:

    I’m running a 4e game for 6 friends now (age range 19-41) and I agree with a lot of what’s been said. I’ve planned out a campaign that could run through epid tier, but I have a climax at the end of heroic and paragon tiers as well that could serve as a good end point, if people are ready to try something new. I also have one player whom I’m grooming to DM once the group decides to change. That said, the approach I take to world design is to pick a world, modify heavily, and then use modified pre-fan adventures to fit the story and the world. So, like Dra8er said, this way it’s really a series of loosely related adventures tied together by the story arc, and each session feels complete.

    With 7 people, we’ve actually found that devoting a whole Saturday once a month works better than looking for 3 or 4 hours here and there, so the sessions tend to be long. We do have a good system for absences, though. I have a list of substitutes that I call to run the character of the absent player. It’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork as experienced players when you start mentioning that a game is going on. Then, we post recaps of the adventure on the blog so that the absent player knows what happened (and so the rest of us know the next time to get together). I also put lists of treasure, funny quotes, pictures of monsters and NPC’s, and whatever else on the website. (http://kombatadvantage.org/ – They chose the name, I had nothing to do with it — my only suggestion, Bloody Buon Giorno, was shot down — and we’re still building it.)

    We’re all grown ups and the vast majority of the players are first time pen and paper, so no one has that “this is my character and no one else can touch it” attitude that we had in elementary school. Thus, relinquishing your character to someone you don’t know isn’t a problem, and even if they person doesn’t have as much experience, the whole team pitches in to help out.

    For the handful who want to play more often (and the dozens who have expressed interest in playing), we run one shots and smaller games in between.

    Another great pickup game I haven’t seen mentioned yet is Engle’s Matrix Games. I got into these when I went to law school in Bloomington and really enjoyed them. Example here: http://www.freewebs.com/matrixgamer1/

  16. Wax Banks says:

    First things first: Games like that do exist. They’re called indie games, and you can buy them at indiepressrevolution.com or from the individual vendors.

    Well, or they’re called Call of Cthulhu or Savage Worlds or Over the Edge or…

    I got more and more confused as I read this post; I know that the site is aimed at D&D (particularly 4e) players and all, but there are plenty of games well-suited to one-off play – starting with OD&D itself – and if roleplaying is really about story, there’s a strong argument to be made that D&D 4e’s combat/crunch emphasis actively works against good roleplaying. Most of the time I don’t buy it, but there it is.

    It seems silly to write a post building and building toward the message ‘try a different game to tell different stories’ and then back the hell off to bitch about WotC’s pricing model. Plus your numbered list is all over the goddamn place – half of it asking for things small companies (and White Wolf!) already provide, half wishing for a magical pony. What you’re asking for is an alternative to D&D, you just don’t acknowledge it in the post. Well, there are dozens of them. D&D is a low-rank game, narratively speaking.


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