I just recently got back into a game of D&D 3.5, a short game run by a friend before we start a new campaign. My friend (fairly new to running a game) setup a fairly complex horror themed plot. There was some necessary railroading, which he mentioned beforehand and got our buy-in for, and it worked out fine. Due to circumstances beyond his control the game (which was intended for 2 sessions) became a one-shot with a short formed ending. It was a great story that had too many twists to fit a one-shot. Talking about it afterwards, we all agreed that it would have worked better as a Mini-Series campaign, 6 or 7 games with a definite ending. Not a one-shot, but enough room to get a good detailed story in. There are a lot of things recommending the mini-series campaign:
- One-shots don’t provide a lot of room for character development and don’t get a lot of character investment from the players. Making a new character for a one-shot lets you try out new power combinations or character concepts, but you never get to level them up past where you made them. Since a one-shot character isn’t planned to be in play long, seeing them die is really no big deal. Knowing they will have a character for 6 or 7 sessions lets a player invest in the character and even plan a little development if they level up.
- Mini-series campaigns have a definite ending. Running a 6 or 7 session game gives you enough time to detail a story without feeling the need to stretch it out too long. Some stories are made for the long epic quest with multiple dungeons, attacks on mega-corps, travels through the stars saving ships and planets, etc., but some feel too thin if stretched out over the course of a year or more. When you build your story to fit 6 or 7 sessions you can keep key themes and NPCs in the forefront.
- Mini-series campaigns can be played directly in the sweet spot of whatever game system you are using. Playing a mini-series campaign lets you more accurately judge where characters are going to be at the end, power wise, of your story. Common scenario: The GM creates a BBEG at the start of a campaign. The players go through the campaign and find nifty exploits that grant them lots of unforeseen power boosts as they level up. By the time the BBEG is met, he no longer matches up to the characters’ power levels and needs to be redone, or drops like a ton of bricks. The opposite could happen as well. The challenges you built for your characters as they leveled up might end up being far too powerful for them and you unwittingly commit a TPK before they ever reach the BBEG. Having a shorter amount of sessions gives you less space to try to plan for. You can build challenges without trying to think too far ahead of your players, and thus give them a more balanced play experience.
- Mini-series campaigns let you try out new games and ideas. You can run that interesting steampunk D&D game idea (steampunk beholder, how awesome would that be in your game?) for two months, then jump into that GURPs Antarctic horror game you’ve been thinking about, let Sarah run that Savage Worlds Deadland’s game she wanted to do at some point, come back to running an all rogue fantasy D&D game, take some time off over the holidays, and then let Roger run that Traveler space game he was thinking about. You can get a lot of diversity and new gaming in when you keep the length of the campaigns shorter.
- Mini-series campaigns can give the group’s main Game Master the chance to play and other people the chance to run. This lets people share the work and fun of GMing, prevents a lot of burnout, and helps facilitate new ideas and game styles. Even if you play the same game system and setting for each game, new people GMing means new styles and stories to explore. Plus, knowing that they don’t have to plan anything too massive puts less pressure on new Game Masters.
A good structure for a mini-series campaign is 6 to 8 games. I personally prefer the 6 game setup for a short campaign and the 8 game scenario for a campaign with one or two sub-adventures or sidequests thrown in. This lets the campaign be broken up into 3 or 4 sections with a definite beginning, middle, and end.
1 – 2 sessions in – Backgrounds and character entrenchment, initial encounters that are "easy" wins, or situations that setup the main story. These are the games where the group establishes their new characters and gets most into the game’s story.
3 – 4 sessions in – The discovery and the juicy bits. This is where you make the plot matter and the PCs get to effect it. While the plot will be introduced in the first two sessions this is where the PCs really get to interact with it.
5th session – The beginning of the end, the climax and anything that precludes the main fight/end scene. This is where the players know they are getting to the end and gear up for it. Their hardest, most meaningful fight is ahead and this is the penultimate session where they take their first steps towards the end, for good or bad.
6th session – The end scene. Everything happens here. The PCs face the BBEG, they save or let down the town, the dragon is fought, etc. This is also the session for resolution. The personal plots that are important to the PCs should be wrapped up in this session.
So what do you think about the mini-series campaign? It certainly isn’t a new idea, but it is one I think a lot of Game Masters overlook when planning a new game, even when running from a published adventure. Do you run your games like this or does it feel too short or too long to accommodate your campaign ideas?