Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Long Game

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.


Natalie said...

I think the fact that you build campaigns on themes helps, too. I still need to try that out myself, but I suspect that gives some bedrock to bring variety to the campaign while still keeping the same identity; you can go back to the themes to come up with stuff that approaches the same ideas from new angles.

And the fact that both games have slowly built up complication over a long period of time has helped, from a player-interest perspective.

trollsmyth said...

Agreed on both counts. Especially as that second point gives you both complexity based on the player's interests and avoids Tekumel-shock Syndrome. ;p

Anonymous said...

Excellent observation about characters being what keeps players coming back. I'm only in my second real RPG campaign as a player now, and the first was aborted early, partly because half of the players felt very little connection to their characters.

Anonymous said...

My wife is very good at running long term character driven games. I have not been as successful but I keep trying.

Good article with solid advice. Now I just need to get a group together again.

trollsmyth said...

onlinedm and seaofstarsrpg: Thanks to you both. :) Yeah, keeping the focus on the PCs isn't always easy, and often means sacrificing your darlings. But I've never run anything even approaching a successful game without it.

Ragnardbard said...

Great post! Your point about the basic integrity of the character-driven game seems spot on to me. Part of my motivation for developing a 'setting-lite' sandbox setting for my imminent Labyrinth Lord campaign is based on a similar instinct. I have several settings I feel a great deal of affection towards, but that itself seems to be somewhat problematic. Distinct flavour in a setting can grate upon players, as can a laboured plot that the players aren't swallowing. That's why I want to set up a real vanilla setting, which has all of the generic tropes where they're expected, without demanding too much of the players alert attention. Such attention can instead be focused on party goals. The results of their efforts should gel with the bare bones of the setting, and the by-product is the fleshed out and soon to be familiar world which the PCs inhabit...

Anonymous said...

Ditto. Without the PC's coming back, the game is done. I DM my D&D campaign from a players perspective. I know that when I've been a PC in someone else's game my main question is always, "what is my place in this DM's world?" So during my gaming sessions my players usually have that same attitude; they want to interact with everyone else from their characters point-of-view. And it's that desire to sort of "grow their character" that keeps them coming back. The interactions are enticing to say the least.

Natalie said...

I have several settings I feel a great deal of affection towards, but that itself seems to be somewhat problematic.

The flip side of that is, part of the reason that D&TP has lasted as long as it has is that the setting is weird enough to support hundreds of e-mails of questions and discussion about the finer points of this or that culture, as well as the overarching schemes behind it all. That in turn means that my character is pretty tightly integrated into that setting. This isn't going to work for everyone (I'm the only player who's gotten nearly this involved with the setting.) but if your players interests lean that way, a complex and off-beat setting can be really rewarding in player involvement outside of sessions and greater depth within them.

Of course, the style of setting design here really important as well. Because Trollsmyth tends to build things in response to my questions rather than trying to map it all out ahead of time, that means that certain parts of the setting have been built around or at least influenced by my interests.

Alex Schroeder said...

I trying to run a long campaign and just last Sunday we had two new players at the table. For the first time I thought that maybe the campaign was going to build up so much past events that new players might eventually suffer "Tékumel-shock syndrome" (great term, haha) – any advice on how to ease new players into a long running campaign?

Pontifex said...

What if you had a game system that had a structure for personality (like you cite for GURPS), but it could change realistically over time?

That is one thing I have done in my game.

Natalie said...

For the first time I thought that maybe the campaign was going to build up so much past events that new players might eventually suffer "Tékumel-shock syndrome" (great term, haha) – any advice on how to ease new players into a long running campaign?

One thing that seems to help is to get players to explain things to each other. We've just added a new player to one of the games (after about thirty sessions), and that's mostly what we're doing. I've talked to her some about the setting outside of the game, and her character comes from a very different background from the rest of us, so almost always if there's something she doesn't get right away in-game, she can just ask about it in character and the other characters will explain. Which is great for us, since intra-party interaction is one of the main draws of that game.

JB said...

In my long-term (multi-year) campaigns there were two significant similarities...excellent (perhaps "radical") identification with one's character (character driven plots, character-at-center scenarios) and specific, detailed settings that were completely malleable to the actions of the characters (the world was "real" but completely "breakable" by PC action).

I definitely identify with a lot of the points of this post.

trollsmyth said...

Alex: What Oddysey said. I made sure the PC came from someplace far away from the current action (and it's best if it's a place the PCs primarily know as terra incongnita, so you and the player can develop that part of their background as needed) so that they could ask questions in-character. This really encourages the new player to actively engage the old players and helps them settle into the existing group.

(It also means the burden of answering all their questions doesn't fall entirely on you. ;) )

Greg: That would probably work. A lot would depend on how much the system allows the players to adjust their characters' personalities on their timeframe. In truth, I find it helps if the setting or system nudges the players every now and then to at least take a sort of personality inventory every now and then, but players also like to know that they have a lot of control over that as well.

Also, if it happens too often, and the changes appear capricious and extreme, it can severely inhibit identification with and emotional investment in a PC.

Natalie said...

In truth, I find it helps if the setting or system nudges the players every now and then to at least take a sort of personality inventory every now and then, but players also like to know that they have a lot of control over that as well.

Personality inventory? Like, "What are the important elements of my character's personality, and do I want it to stay that way?"

Anonymous said...

I thought this port and the previous one were excellent - exactly what I look for out of gaming as well. It's that balance of versimilitude, freshness, and character that has had some of my campaigns be 5 years long and happily so.