On the Campaign Crash

How do you sustain an inherently unstable system?

A long running campaign is a desirable thing. Yet many (most) campaigns crash and burn before becoming memorable. Few get played very long.

For new players the average length of a campaign f is 8 sessions. This rises up to 12 sessions for people playing role-playing games for under 5 years. (source)

So that's what you can expect from a campaign. Two to three months of play. You roll up a character and get him to level 2 or 3 before the campaign explodes. If you're lucky, you might make it to level 5 before the game fizzles out. Real world spanning memorable play there.

And yet the average campaign length of my games is somewhere around 40 games more than double the average of someone of my gaming experience, usually comprising 2+ years of play.

Why is this?

Your game is going to crash.

What you should do is design the game to take advantage of those crash-only systems. For example, leadership positions can not be permanent, because people die. That system is going to crash. Creating a political structure that formalizes the transfer of power rather than just letting it go till it blows up into a war for power has stabilized an inherently unstable system.

This instead of being a negative thing is very very positive. The reason your games end and burn out is because they have accumulated detritus that accumulates through play that eventually becomes more of a burden then the fun that is had during play. This is why rolling up new characters is so enjoyable—they don't have to deal with the fallout from previous actions and choices. At some point this weight becomes overbearing and it drives the game to a crash.

I'm not just talking about choices in game. This is also the fabled Gamer Attention Deficit Syndrome I'm talking about. You are exposed to new ideas and they build up over time until the weight of all those new ideas conflicts with your current campaign. Then you nuke everything and begin again.

You don't have to.

The serial television show

Recently, gamings actor/philosopher in residence Justin Alexander recently talked about bloat in extended narratives—serial television shows. Serial television shows are very much like a gaming campaign. Characters are introduced, plots are driven forward, change occurs and stays. What eventually happens in many of those television shows is that the show gets bogged down in an ever increasing number of characters, side plots, and other events, until it feels like each single episode only contains about 4 minutes of content due to switching between the various storylines. 

He also notes some examples of how some shows avoided the problem. He says:
"One TV series that seemed to largely avoid this problem while also enjoying the benefits of arc-plotting was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The technique they used seems relatively straight-forward: They limited the number of arc-plots they introduced in each season and made sure that most or all of them were resolved by the end of the season. As a result, when they launched season 6, for example, they didn’t have any more balls in the air than they did when they were launching season 3."
And what he's talking about there is a scheduled crash.

The gaming life

I'm not talking about a single game.

Internalizing this crash process is important, because when you start a new campaign you never do so in a state where you have never ran a game before. You will always start with the experiences, successes and failures of your previous campaigns behind you.  There is no "new" campaign. Just the next one. And just like moving somewhere for a fresh start won't solve any of your problems with your life, neither will starting a new campaign solve any of the problems with your current game.

What is necessary to resolve this issue is some examination of your previous gaming experience. Why do your games end?

Do you have gamer attention deficit disorder? Have events in the campaign restructure the way things work drastically. Your players reluctant to engage in the tedium of a long quest? Resolve it in an unexpected way and have the campaign head off in a new direction. Want to try out a different style of gaming? Switch it up within the game itself. Getting burnt out on a setting or project? Restructure your time devoted to running the game, take turns, or have something new or different happen. Did the characters lose focus because there's too much for them to do?

There is no perfect game. They are all going to end, and like all crashed endings: divorces, marriages, new jobs, children, there's pain involved. Thinking that changing things will make it avoidable is a dream from a pipe. Directing your game towards that crash gives you some measure of control over the outcome.

Fly it right into the ground and come out the other side.

Hack & Slash 
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  1. I had one crash and burn due to scheduling and lifestyle changes recently(ish). Reboot/new campaign will be a little less frequent with longer sessions and occasional online play (i hope).
    I've managed more then one campaign that has lasted for years and while I like weekly gaming a campaign might endure better with biweekly or nearly biweekly sessions, had one go for about 8 years played every 2 or 3 weeks that lasted well over 100 sessions. The majority of campaigns I DM last about 30 - 40 sessions in my experience and it's usually outside life that gets in the way but some do fall to gamer attention deficit disorder (usually on my part as
    best advice: Have an open campaign structure, make room for different play styles. Don't depend on the same folks turning up on session 2 and session 30, the more a campaign depends on the involvement of specific players the more likely it is to crash and burn.

  2. One thing that I plan to do in an upcoming campaign is run it in mini-campaigns/episodes. First mini-campaign will take place in one part of the world, with one or a few major events taking place. Then we move on to the next area, with new characters, new major events. The final mini-campaign will feature the things that all the old characters have done and culminate in some epic battle. Sort of like... I want to say Dragon Quest 4, but I might be mistaken.

    That will hopefully keep the players interested throughout the entire thing (and if someone wants, it shouldn't be too hard to move some of the characters between the mini-campaigns). And the best part is, it is definitely not a problem to let new people join... and if someone needs to quit for some reason, no problem. That character will just stay in the old area and be a part of the background.

    Other than that, I think my longest campaign was a couple of months... some 10-20 sessions and then life comes in the way. People move, get new jobs, get families, decide they want to start studying again etc.

  3. I've always thought that the large collection of strange levels and portals (the machine level, bottle city, isle of the ape, etc) that existed in the early days of D&D was an effort to avoid gamer ADD. Arneson, forex, was a huge Napoleonics fan and thus had his elves discover gunpower so they could fight in bright Georgian uniforms.

    1. The dungeon does provide ome bulwark against gamer ADD as you can have very different dungeon levels, but you have to be running a campaign that will let that happen. Too much misplaced continuity and level 3 is just like level 4 with slightly tougher monsters and this doesn't fight the ADD.


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