18 June 2022
Richard Jansen-Parkes argues exactly why resolution wins out over epic length campaigns
There’s always been this weird assumption hanging around the world of tabletop roleplaying, that in order for a campaign to be good it must also be long. Or, to use the more marketing-friendly term, epic.
This applies to the homebrewers as much as the publishers that keep putting out sweeping campaign books that could be used to bludgeon rats to death. Almost all of us – and I very much count myself in this – fall into the trap of planning our campaigns as though they’ll last forever; as though this time we’ll definitely make it to level 20, and certainly won’t see the group collapse after six sessions because Jenny can’t do Wednesdays anymore.
And, look, sometimes it works out. Sometimes you do get a group of adults who can regularly play together without anybody moving, breaking up with the GM or having a kid. In those cases, an epic multi-year campaign can offer a truly special experience.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, though, this is a relative rarity. Stats from the official D&D web platform, DnD Beyond, suggest that it’s rare for campaigns to reach even level ten –half-way through the game’s assumed progression.
With this in mind, I’d like to make a proposal: We should normalise shorter campaigns.
I’m not saying that every campaign needs to be squeezed down into a one-shot (as much as I like those), or that we should impose an outright ban on epics. Rather, I think more games, and more tables, should look to run games that lie somewhere in the middle. Enough room to see your characters grow and plotlines play out, but without requiring a vast commitment to see through to the end. Something that can be knocked out in three months of weekly sessions, maybe, or one year of gentle, monthly meet-ups.
This might feel limiting if you’re used to the base assumption that games must – by definition – see and do everything in the rulebook, but if we’re assuming three hours per session, and a dozen separate sessions, that amounts to about 36 hours of gameplay. In that time you could watch every Lord of the Rings movie (extended edition, naturally), all nine of the core Star Wars’ and the entire Back to the Future trilogy, and still have time left over to play a decent – if very sleep deprived – RPG session at the end.
Not only does this length of campaign fit more easily into the realities of people’s lives, it allows more of the table to take a shot at running games themselves. If nothing else, this is a wonderful way to avoid the dreaded condition known as GM burnout.
But there’s more than practicality at stake here. If we could get used to these shorter, snappier campaigns we also unlock a whole host of other benefits.
Chief among these has to be the chance to play more RPGs. Not more sessions, but more different RPGs. If you aren’t tied into one system for three years at a time it’s much easier for the group to try out new and interesting games, and to explore the rich space of roleplaying that lies beyond the big names.
If you’re normally a strict swords and sorcery group, you can see how Lovecraftian horror suits you for a couple of months, try something weird and indie, or leap into one of the countless licensed games out there like the Star Wars or Warhammer RPGs. Who knows, there may even be a game lurking in this very magazine that you might actually get to the table if you’re willing to operate on a shorter timeframe.
Heck, even if you’re committed to staying within the same system for some reason, there’s absolutely no reason why shorter campaigns can’t work for you. Run a few months of traditional zero-to-hero adventuring, then leap into another part of the same world with some high-level bad guys. You still get all the juicy worldbuilding of an epic, but you also get plenty of resolution along the way.
If nothing else, embracing the idea of shorter RPGs is a great way to guarantee – or at least push the odds in your favour – that the stories and characters you love actually get some resolution. The idea of all those campaigns, all those hours of work and moments of genuine love, collapsing into dust because work shifts don’t line up makes me deeply sad. Let’s change that by making things a bit more manageable.