Several DM’s (and aspiring writers) have dreams of running epic campaigns where their player’s characters see the world. When the DM gets a group whose schedules align more often than the planets do these long term campaigns can often be cut short. What are some of the leading causes of this, and what can you do to fix them?
1. Character Engagement and Investment
The number one reason I see for long term campaigns failing is because players lose interest. This can be because they no longer enjoy playing their character or they have zero investment in the story. If the entire party just isn’t feeling it anymore, then the campaign is probably going to end soon. While this is the number one cause; it is also one of the easiest problems to fix.
If a player doesn’t like a character, it's time to talk shop with the player and figure out a fix. This can be reworking the character mechanically or figuring out what they are missing story-wise and integrating it into plot of the campaign. Out of all the issues I have seen go wrong with character creation it is a failure on the players to set goals for their characters. It is not up to the dungeon master to set those goals, but to incorporate those goals into the story they are weaving. This investment might make a character that seems flat and uninteresting become more exciting. Setting more than one goal or taking on new goals is a way to let the character develop and continue playing. It is on both the Dungeon Master and the player to work on these.
My personal preparation for a campaign involves adding at least one thing to the campaign that is relevant to each player. In my planning, I include opportunities for personal arcs and have the player’s characters drive them towards those arcs. This has involved extensive discussions with each of my players on what they want to accomplish with their characters. It takes everyone involved to keep the wheels turning.
If all else fails, it is perfectly fine for the players to change characters. Give that character a way out of the story, and the new character a way into the game. Make sure to learn why the character that is leaving didn’t work and make sure that those problems are addressed in the new one. It is unproductive to have players constantly changing characters. If they keep getting bored with them then it’s time to go back to getting the player invested in the character.
It is also good to keep in mind what each player looks for while playing D&D. Some players enjoy roleplaying more than combat, while others may get a kick out of strategizing over how to accomplish a goal. Speaking to each of your players you can ask them what they like to do. When designing sessions take into consideration how long it’s been since you let an individual player experience what they get the most enjoyment from.
2. The Story Arc/Season
This point was actually a failing of the first campaign I ever wrote. I had an epic story with several arcs, but the entire thing depended on the players not always winning. This would be fine, if the game didn’t go on for over a year. In the course of a month I can understand having the players not always pulling ahead, but this comes back to the last point. If the players are not getting engaged and feeling like they are accomplishing anything, then they are going to want to abandon ship. To this end I looked to completely different sources of media for a solution.
It’s no secret that I am a huge anime fan. I’m even caught up on watching One Piece, which at the time of this writing is nearing 900 episodes, and yet every week I am pulled to the screen waiting to find out what happens next. As most seasoned anime viewers will know, shows usually have a single arc during a season. This arc is pretty much its own self contained story with very little actually affecting too many other elements of the show. These are things like the Dark Tournament from Yu-Yu-Hakusho to the Frieza Saga in Dragonball Z. What these arcs allow you to do is to have smaller stories within your larger narrative that your characters can have that will have a definitive ending and quite possibly a victory (although not every arc may have this, most probably will.)
However, each of these arcs do not have to be completely separate from the campaign/show as a whole. For instance, characters from past arcs may come back (like Frieza in Resurrection F and Dragonball: Super) and change parts of a future arc depending on what the characters did doing those arcs. For example, helping out a nobleman during a past arc could lead to having an ally when you decide to face off against the hordes of the undead later in your campaign. This is the technique that I use in our Twitch streams, Tales from the Tavern. You can tie these arcs into larger parts of your campaign, building up intrigue and characters along with deepening ties that the players have to the world.
The Side Quest
Sometimes it’s good to take a break either from the current story arc or while you are between story arcs. Side quests should be small stories that don’t take more than a few sessions. They are nice distractions that have a low payoff, possibly even just a story payoff. This gives some breathing time for a low risk activity and doesn’t make them feel pressured.
3. Last Minute Planning and Bullet Points
Sometimes one can get a bit in depth with planning. While there is nothing wrong with planning what is going to happen in a game, it's important to have the players take the reins. At the same time, you should be driving the players towards certain points in the story. Instead of planning out all of the events of a story arc, record key events you would like to explore. I include plot hooks (yes multiple, you can never be too sure), the ending and the various outcomes of that ending, and maybe some key points I want the players to explore throughout the adventure. I might also include some NPC’s I want to include, but not much else.
For sessions I only plan out the next 1 or 2 sessions of play (I try for 2 just in case they cover the content I intended for them to play). This makes it easier to adapt your plans for whatever wrenches your players end up throwing at them, and allows your players to drive how they get to each bullet point you outlined in your original planning. I have found this to be a good middle-ground between open world campaigns and campaigns on the rails.
Keeping in mind the story arcs, whenever the players complete a story arc I give them a bit of downtime to rest and spend gold. You can read more about downtime from an article I wrote a while back. It is during this downtime that I have at least 2 or 3 story arcs that the players can take and let the players choose their own path.
4. Villains Your Players Love to Hate
For long term games, you will lose some engagement if the villains you have are incredibly boring or unreachable. You want a villain that just mentioning their name will incite emotions into the players. While you should try to do this for every campaign, it is far more important for some longer games where you might be facing the villain more than once. Stopping the villain should be important to the players, so you should assist in making the downfall of the villain an important one.
Matryoshka of Villains
Recurring villains can be difficult to pull off; especially when those pesky players keep killing them. One way to fix this is to create a sort of Russian nesting doll structure of villains. When one villain is defeated, another one is either ranked above them or takes its place. Setting this up ahead of time can give you plenty of villains to work with.
In one case, I had the players combating an assassin, when they defeated him in combat it was revealed that they had actually been fighting a doppelganger and that the real assassin was getting away. This can be done with Simulacrum or just a normal imposter. You might even reveal that the villain the players they thought they were fighting at the end is just an underling to someone bigger. They could also be completely unrelated to the faction that is actually causing mischief and that it was all just a misunderstanding. You do want to be careful and cut it off eventually or your players will predict there is more with every villain.
5. NPC’s Your Players Can’t Live Without
It is without a doubt that there will be that one NPC that your player’s fall in love with that you did not predict they would like. Take these NPC’s and bring them into your story, make them more important than you planned on. This can reward the players and get them more invested.
Some examples of this:
Kidnap the NPC, creating a quest to go save them
Have them manage things for characters while they are adventuring
Reveal them to be with the enemy
Have them go on adventures with the characters
Make them a resource the players can depend on (barkeep, librarian, etc.)
Even if the NPC does not stick around, keep note of them. Later down the road bring them back into the scene and you are sure to get a reaction out of your players. It will remind them of how far they have come, letting that nostalgia also take root and remind them what they have invested.
If you can get the group together you can create a truly remarkable campaign that your friends and you will talk about for years and with luck, play for years! With long term games you can get real memories and real emotions from what goes on at the table. Just a little bit of planning can make this kind of adventure go a lot smoother. While it may seem like there are a lot of elements here, it really is not that difficult to achieve success in it.
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