Grognardia's recent post about gamer ADD reminded me that my experience is far outside the norm. Since college (1990 for those of you playing along at home) nearly all my games have been multiyear epics. I've played in a handful of short games and one-shots, but pretty much everything I've run has been long-term. The Doom & Tea Parties game has bifurcated into two sorta kinda parallel games running in the same campaign, and they've both been running on a weekly basis for nearly 18 months. (Oddysey reports we’ve had roughly 85 sessions of the older game.) And neither shows any signs of ending anytime soon.
So how does this happen? Part of it, I think, is simply expectations; I assume my games will last for years and therefore they do. Of course no plan survives contact with the enemy, er, I mean players. Luckily, my players seem very amenable to the idea of long-running campaigns. It's likely there’s some self-selection going on there. Still, I think there are some things I do which encourage long-running game.
Verisimilitude: my highest good. Which means I'm probably overstating its importance, but one of the keys to a long-running campaign is predictability. The players need to know that certain things won't change, or at least won't change without a good reason. This allows the players to invest emotionally in the world in their characters. Once they've done that, you've got them!
Flexibility: and now that I've said that, I'm going to contradict myself. The truth is, everything does become boring after a while. Things need to be shaken up every now and kept fresh, and players need surprises. There is a sweet spot between chaos and stagnation. I think the key to hitting that sweet spot is being just consistent enough to preserve the verisimilitude and not too much more than that. And this leads to all sorts of things. Such as...
Rules-lite: yes, I'm fairly certain you can run a long-term campaign with a rules-heavy game. I'm just not sure I can do it. Part of the problem with rules heavy games is that they constrain your flexibility. For instance, one of the things that I have frequently seen in long-term campaigns is that characters change over time. Granted, most advancement mechanics assume that the characters will change, and some even give the players options to define that change. But the more they do this, the more they also constrain how characters change. Games like GURPS can be the worst offenders, as they turn personality into mechanics. Changing the character’s personality over time and in response to events in the characters lives is one of the primary ways players in a long-running campaign keep things fresh for themselves. The naïve innocent who grows in sadness and wisdom, the rogue who reforms, the paragon who falls, and the lover (win, lose or draw) all transform slowly over time. The players can enjoy these transformations while leaving themselves open both to changes in the game and alterations to the vectors the PCs’ personalities seem to be moving in.
Rules-lite games also make it easier for more profound transformations that actually do have mechanical effects. Changing your character's race or class in 3E can be a nightmare, especially for a mid- or high-level character. Changing your character's race and class in Labyrinth Lord is a piece of cake; even a high-level character can generally be transformed in half-an-hour or less of fiddling with the character sheet. The less the rules get in your way, the more options you have to keep the game flexible.
Character-driven: I've been talking about characters a lot, and there's a reason for that. At the end of the day, the players are there because of their characters. No matter how amazing or wondrous your campaign setting is, it's the chance to play their characters that brings the players back week after week. It's vital to keep this in mind. Campaigns about your setting or about your wicked plots or masterful villains simply won't last. Players just are not that into it. This means you need to keep things at a very human level. Whether your campaign features the clash of empires, confrontations between gods, or the destruction of entire worlds, you really need to focus on what this means to the players’ characters and their immediate social circle.
Flexible characters in a player-centered campaign creates a feedback loop. The PCs interact with the setting, the setting responds and interacts with the PCs, and both are transformed. These transformations necessitate more interactions, which slowly, over time, keep things constantly moving. It's hard to get bored in this type of game so long as your players are interested in their characters and you are interested in the campaign. So long as the players remain flexible about their character concepts and you're flexible about your campaign concept, this sort of play constantly and consistently creates surprises for everybody.
Follow your bliss: because you need to be having fun to. My original concept for the Doom & Tea Parties game was a Labyrinth Lord version of Birthright. Since I first started playing RPGs, I've always been fascinated with the idea of Arthurian style campaigns. But the truth is, my heart was really more into Swords and Sorcery. Shortly after I posted my gnome class on this blog, I switched gears, embraced my inner Robert Howard, and created the outline for the campaign as it exists now. I'm very happy I did this because I doubt the Birthright version would have lasted. I simply wasn't that interested in it, as much fun as it would've been.
Know yourself, know your interests, and don't shy away.
Be demanding: especially about the schedule. You're going to put a hell of a lot of work into this, and devote a hell of a lot of time to it. There is absolutely no reason why you should not expect the same of your players. If you treat it seriously, and if you demand that it be treated seriously, you will get players who treat it seriously. For instance, the Doom & Tea Parties games run weekly. Yes, both of them. There are weeks when we skip the game, but those are the exception and not the rule.
Keep on top of the paperwork. Expect your players do the same. Some will and some won't, and they’ll be the ones who don't have the 50 feet of rope when they find themselves at the bottom of a 40 foot pit.
And that, I think, is really the bulk of it. Really, when you get down to it, everyone having fun is the most important part. So long as people are having fun they will keep coming back to play. And that is the heart of longevity.