As I’ve gotten older and been burdened with more responsibilities, it’s difficult for me to commit to run an ongoing campaign. I just don’t have the time to plan and prep for anything longer than a mini-campaign unless it involves adapting published adventures. Usually, my groups counter this problem by running campaigns on alternate weeks, but even that sometimes only postpones the inevitable for a couple of sessions before I hit that wall of “no new material.”
Fortunately, I discovered a solution a few years back that I call “the periodic campaign.” Rather than start an ongoing campaign, I’d come up with material that would last a few sessions. Sometimes it’s a single long adventure, sometimes it’s a series of linked adventures, and sometimes it’s just 3 or 4 episodic adventures. In all cases, once the players have run through the material, the periodic campaign goes into hibernation.
So how is the periodic campaign different from a mini-campaign or an ongoing campaign on hiatus? It’s a state of mind. When I propose a periodic campaign, I fully intend on revisiting it, and soon. I just need to skip a few sessions until my “GM batteries” are recharged. Once I’ve come up with new material, we continue the campaign. In the interim, sessions are skipped or we play something else (raiding my seemingly endless supply of Call of Cthulhu scenarios is always a popular option).
Here are a few things I keep in mind when I’m planning a periodic campaign.
1. Be upfront about it.
If you’re going to run a periodic campaign, be up front about it and let the players know as much as you can about the upcoming block of sessions. This way there are no surprises or hard feelings when the game they are enjoying suddenly ends, especially if they were planning on playing “the long game” with their characters. Also, if you aren’t up front about what you’re doing, giving your players the “we’ll get back to this, I promise” speech often rings hollow.
2. Be thematic.
While you certainly can run a block of four unrelated adventures and call it a day, it really does help make the campaign stronger if you can bind them together. This could be the traditional “over-arcing” mini-campaign, it could be over-arcing subplots, or each adventure could simply showcase different aspects of the universe in which you are running. Make the most of the time you have to make your players want more.
3. Schedule the return.
A good way to keep your players and yourself interested in the next part of the periodic campaign is to schedule it. This need not be a hard date, but letting your players know that you plan to return after Christie finishes running her Pathfinder campaign does wonders to keep your campaign alive even while you aren’t running it. Coordination is key here if you’re alternating with another GM; if you aren’t willing to wait a year and a half between periods, you’ll want to address that.
4. Character advancement has time to be factored in.
Have you ever planned a challenging adventure only for it to fall apart because you didn’t anticipate a new talent or ability among the PCs, especially when the purchase is made three minutes before you launched into it? With a periodic campaign, this issue is minimized. Even if the players don’t spend their points at the end of the current block you can request that they do so within a reasonable period of time so that you can factor in the upgrades for the next block.
5. You get to use your best material.
Without the rigors of an ongoing campaign, you have time to plot out your adventures without worrying about the next session creeping up on you. Also, if your players do something unexpected, it won’t hobble the next few sessions or, worse, kill the campaign. You’ve got time to brainstorm and factor in the new developments before launching the next block of your campaign.
While I’ve only employed the periodic campaign occasionally over the years, I’ve found it to be very useful. How about you? Do you run periodic campaigns? If not, would you consider it? Have you encountered or do you foresee any problems with a periodic campaign?
This was something I remember discussing among my group about 20 years ago. We had 3 GMs who all wanted to run something, and our agreement was to run by seasons. GM A would run something for autumn, GM B would take over in winter, and so on. Back then, we played weekly, or nearly so.
It worked, in that GM A ran her game for two weeks, and then dropped out of the group. GM B took over for a little bit, then Real Life broke that one up, too. GM C started something that turned into a 3 year long game, as the ideas kept flowing, and no one had a better idea.
Since children have come along, we have settled into monthly games instead, and have dropped the concept in two RPG groups. There is at least one campaign that ended after 5+ years, and we daydream about reviving those characters, but nothing’s been done after 5 years of two long campaigns.
Now that my oldest son is a teenager and has formed a group for RPGing, all of them are enthused about GMing, and all of them have ideas about what to run. They have an agreement to rotate games, but not a plan for how to carry out the rotation yet.
I’ve actually been very surprised at how effective this tactic can be. If my regular weekly game hits a glitch that makes us skip a couple weeks, I’m lucky if my players have any real enthusiasm for returning to it. But I’ve been running a couple of periodic games in genres we don’t usually play that have been rousing success stories, and the players are always excited to pick them up again for a few sessions, even if it’s been a few months. It obviously has a lot to do with their expectations, and I love having the freedom to pull one of those games out whenever I’m struck with inspiration for a new scenario.
Good stuff, Walt!
We do this regularly.
I am our groups primary DM and the only DM that runs a regular, sustained campaign. A few of the others like to dabble though, and so every couple months we’ll take a break from my game and play a few weeks of another DMs game. Sometimes we play the same system, sometimes a different one.
We’ve had pretty good success with it.
I particularly like that (1) I can play once in a while, (2) we can try different games and (3) the peeps that run these games can flesh out the ‘down time’ and add some nice character development that is very difficult in a sustained weekly game.
This has come about for us more often as a mistake, though one group tackled this explicitly by setting up every game as short, with an option to run a sequel at some later point.
You’re very right that explanation and expectation setting at the beginning are critical. I’ve been a part of good games that went away, but because they weren’t scheduled to come back, they don’t.